WHen I doe count the clock that tels the time,
And ſee the braue day ſunck in hidious night,
When I behold the violet paſt prime,
And ſable curls or ſiluer’d ore with white:
When lofty trees I ſee barren of leaues,
Which erſt from heat did canopie the herd
And Sommers greene all girded vp in ſheaues
Borne on the beare with white and briſtly beard:
Then of thy beauty do I queſtion make
That thou among the waſtes of time muſt goe,
Since ſweets and beauties do them-ſelues forſake,
And die as faſt as they ſee others grow,
And nothing gainſt Times ſieth can make defence
Saue breed to braue him, when he takes thee hence.
The sonnet’s position in the sequence at No. 12 coincides with the 12 hours on a clock-face. Unusually, it comprises one sentence, divided rhetorically by “When I,” “When I,” “When . . I,” and “Then.” Its opening line with the alliterated ‘c’ of “count” and “clock,” and ‘t’ of “tels” and “time” conjures up the sound of a clock’s strokes. The poet counts with the clock, marking time with its numbers as it “tels the time,” spells out the time or counts it as a teller, as it presses inevitably onwards. He reflects on the “braue day,” both ‘splendid’ and ‘defiant’ in the face of the powers of darkness, “sunck in hidious night;” “sunck,” because the sun has descended into the west and night or because it has been drowned under the weight of frightful (“hidious”) night.
The imagery now shifts from the span of a day to that of the year. By aligning the ages of man with the year’s seasons Shakespeare is following a popular tradition whose locus classicus was found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid exclaims, ‘Do you not see how the year, passing through its seasons (“species”), resembles our journey through life.’ 1Shakespeare’s accepts from him the oppressive force of winter to argue for the youth’s producing children. The poet ponders the violet, a spring flower associated with youth (Hamlet is “A Violet in the youth of Primy Nature”), which is “past prime,” past its moment of perfection, but alluding to “prime” as ‘spring’ (and possibly drawing on Ovid’s “post ver” = “past prime”). 2 He looks upon “sable curls or siluer’d ore with white;” “sable” is black and also an heraldic colour. The phrase, “or siluer’d ore,” has caused editorial debate: if the final “ore” is read as ‘o’er’ or ‘over,’ as it seems it should, then the first “or” should probably be emended to ‘all,’ to give ‘all silvered over’ and to establish a parallel with “all girded vp” (‘o’er silvered all’ is a further possible reading). Both “or” (gold) and silver are heraldic colours. Ovid pictures winter as ‘senile and “hidious”’ (“senilis hiems . . horrida”) and covered with ‘white hair’ (“alba capillos”), while the ghost of Hamlet’s father has a beard that is “sable Siluer’d.” 3 The poet has observed “lofty trees,” both ‘high’ and ‘noble’ trees, which earlier (“earst”) acted as canopies to shelter the herd from summer heat, but which are now “barren of leaues.” (Canopies were a feature of funeral processions, being borne over the biers of nobles.) He has looked upon “Sommers greene,” the growing produce in its freshness, harvested in autumn (“girded vp in sheaues”), scythed and tied by hempen cords in litches. The final element is the harvest procession: the bier (“beare”) is the litter on which the harvested cereal is carried with its “white and bristly beard.” The “beard” is the awn that barley, oats, and other cereals carry when fully ripe. But the seasonal procession is also a funeral one with a litter or hearse carrying an old man, the bristles of whose white beard have kept growing after death. Shakespeare has here followed Golding, who expands Ovid’s ‘winter covered with white hair’ by adding the word “shirle” (bristly) which he has taken from an earlier passage, “Hir haire was harsh and shirle,” to give “overcast / With shirle thinne heare as whyght as snowe.” 4
The poet now submits to scrutiny the youth’s beauty (“of thy beauty do I question make”) and the fact that he must advance forward to be included among the things to which time lays waste (“among the wastes of time”). He argues that things that give delight (“sweets”) and beauty “do them-selues forsake,” depart from themselves as they decline. The phrase recalls Narcissus, to whom Shakespeare refers in Venus and Adonis, “Narcissus so himself himself forsook, / And died to kiss his shadow in the brook” (161-2), while Golding has the dying Narcissus say to himself, “Forsake me not so cruelly that loveth thee so deere.” 5 As fast as they wane and die, so they see “others grow.” Nothing can defend itself (“make defence”) against time’s all-encompassing scythe, other than by braving or defying (“braue”) time by begetting progeny (“breed”) who will outlast time, even after it has taken the youth from the world (“takes thee hence”).
12.1. Ovid, Met. 15.199-200, “non in species succedere quattuor annum / adspicis, aetatis peragentem imitamina nostrae?” Golding (15.221-22) has, “Seest thou not how that the yeere as representing playne / The age of man, departes itself in quarters fowre?”
12.2. Ham. 1.3.7 & Ovid, Met. 15.206.
12.3. Ham. 1.2.241 & Ovid, Met. 15.212-13.
12.4. Ovid, Met. 8.995.
12.5. Golding 3.601.