THoſe lines that I before haue writ doe lie,
Euen thoſe that ſaid I could not loue you deerer,
Yet then my iudgement knew no reaſon why,
My moſt full flame ſhould afterwards burne cleerer.
But reckening time, whoſe milliond accidents
Creepe in twixt vowes, and change decrees of Kings,
Tan ſacred beautie, blunt the ſharp’ſt intents,
Diuert ſtrong mindes to th’ courſe of altring things:
Alas why fearing of times tiranie,
Might I not then ſay now I loue you beſt,
When I was certaine ore in-certainty,
Crowning the preſent, doubting of the reſt:
Loue is a Babe, then might I not ſay ſo
To giue full growth to that which ſtill doth grow.
Sonnet 115 opens by acknowledging that the poet’s earlier expressions of love have been inadequate (“Those lines that I before haue writ doe lie”), even those which stated that he could not love the youth more dearly. Yet the poet did not then know that the flame of love, seeming then to burn at the highest intensity (“most full flame”), should later burn even more brightly (“burne cleerer”). The poet then is not culpable, although “reckening time” is. (Elizabethans would have made a connection between a “full flame” and “reckening,” a ‘recken’ being the hook above the fire’s flame from which a pot was hung.)
Time that reckons is time that calculatingly calls all to account. It is characterized by “milliond accidents,” where “milliond” intends numberless and “accidents” are the unpredictable results it brings. (The quarto’s second quatrain is a series of subordinate clauses and lacks a predicate.) Like an interloper the effects of time threaten affirmations of love (“creepe in twixt vowes”); they cause “decrees of Kings” to be modified; they “Tan sacred beautie,” where Tan” means to make brown or leathery a beauty once held precious; they make the keenest resolve lose its edge (“blunt the sharp’st intents”). Time causes the most resolute minds to turn aside (“Diuert,” from de + vertere = turn aside) in the direction of changeableness (“to th’ course of altring things”). The final “altring” anticipates the “alters” and “alteration” of Sonnet 116, while “diuert th’ course” anticipates its navigational topos.
Given time’s despotic nature (“times tiranie”), the poet asks himself why, to thwart time’s unseen effects, he doesn’t seize the moment and immediately utter the words, “Now I loue you best,” now while he is secure in the face of uncertainty (“certain ore in-certainty”). The present would be the crowning moment (“Crowning the present”), while any future uncertainty would be ignored (“doubting all the rest”).
The couplet is awkward: while, “Loue is a Babe,” might suggest Cupid, who is often depicted as a babe and remains so without growth, it is not the primary meaning here. 1 Rather, since “Loue” is a babe always waiting to be crowned with further maturity, the poet echoes his earlier question (“Might I not then say”) by asking, “might I not say so:” might it be prudent for him not to say, “Now I loue you best,” because to do so would be to award “full growth” to something (love) which is “still” in the process of growing and thus arrest any further flowering.
115.1. Compare Michael Drayton’s Idea 25.5 & 9, “Loues still a Baby, playes with gaudes and toyes . . He still as young as when he first was borne” (The Barrons Wars P5v).