Sonnet 123

Shakespeare Sonnet 123

NO! Time, thou ſhalt not boſt that I doe change,
Thy pyramyds buylt vp with newer might
To me are nothing nouell, nothing ſtrange,
They are but dreſſings of a former ſight:
Our dates are breefe, and therefor we admire,
What thou doſt foyſt vpon vs that is ould,
And rather make them borne to our deſire,
Then thinke that we before haue heard them toulde:
Thy regiſters and thee I both defie,
Not wondring at the preſent, nor the paſt,
For thy records, and what we ſee doth lye,
Made more or les by thy continuall haſt:
This I doe vow and this ſhall euer be,
I will be true diſpight thy ſyeth and thee.

Sonnets 123-125, like Sonnet 107, point to events outside the sequence, which occurred in the period after the death of Elizabeth I on 24 March 1603, specifically the Coronation of James I on 25 July 1603 (Sonnet 125), the Catholic “Bye” and “Main” plots against James and their aftermath from May to December 1603 (Sonnet 124), and the triumphal procession of James through London, postponed until 15 March 1604 because of the plague (Sonnet 123).

Sonnet 123’s conceit is built upon the image of “pyramyds,” a term used in the 16th and early 17th century not only of the pyramids of Egypt but of any tall structure tapering to an apex like an obelisk or spire. They were a feature of the archs, through which James I passed on the Ides of March. Several accounts of the procession are extant including those of Stephen Harrison, the overall superintendent of the event and builder of some of the arches, Ben Jonson, whose arch was the final one, and Thomas Dekker, whose account is the most detailed. All three managed to rush their accounts into print by the end of the year. Harrison uses the term, pyramid, for the ornamental obelisks that dressed or “garnished” the structures he designed. He writes in The Arches of Triumph of “the beauty of Pyramids . . and many other enrichments,” of “Shapes that were erected in most liuely colours, together with Pyramides, long Streamers, Galleries, and all other inrichments,” and of “Other Garnishments . . that gaue illustration and beauty to this building, as Columnes, Pyramids, &c. whose proportions your eye may measure.” Harrison acknowledges that his “Monuments . . were built neuer so strongly, yet now their lastningnes should liue but in the tongues and memories of men,” and has therefore published his volume to ensure that, because these newly built pyramids had now been disassembled and had disappeared as equally as had the old, they might stand in his account, “as perpetuall monuments, not to be shaken in peeces, or to be broken downe, by the malice of that enuious destroyer of all things, Time.” 1

Two arches were recognized for their grandeur, the fourth arch contrasting the new with the old Arabia and Jonson’s final arch. Dekker describes the fourth with its “two Portals that jetted out before these Posternes [which] had their sides open foure seuerall ways, and serued as Pedestalles (of Rusticke) to support two Pyramides, which stood vpon foure great Balles, and foare great Lions: the Pedestalles, Balles, and Pyramides, deuowring in their full vpright height, from the ground line to the top, iust 60. foote” (Harrison provides an illustration of all the arches). The inscription over the frieze in capitals read, “NOVA FAELIX ARABIA,” whose significance Dekker expands: “Vnder that shape of Arabia, this Iland being figured: which two names of New, and Happie, the Countrey could by no merit in it selfe.” A Chorister from St. Paul’s interpreted the arch’s symbolisms, glossing “Arabia Britannica” as

Beames from thine eyes
So vertually shyning, that they bring,
To England new Arabia, a new Spring:
For ioy whereof, Nimphes, Sences, Houres, and Fame,
Eccho loud Hymme, to his imperiall name. 2

Beyond Harrison’s last Arch, ‘The Temple of Janus,’ was a further celebrated pair of pyramids, only visible to the King once the Gate of Janus had been shut, not mentioned by Harrison, but which Ben Jonson claimed as his. Jonson boasts that his  “Pegme in the Strand [was] a worke thought on, begun, and perfected in twelue dayes” and acclaims its “Mechanick part yet standing.” Its Invention, “a Raine-bow, the Moone, Sunne, and those seauen Starres” was “aduanced” or suspended in the air “betweene two Magnificent Pyramid’s of 70. foote in height.” On these pyramids were inscribed or registered “his Maiesties seuerall pedigrees Eng. and Scot.” 3 In his passage the King was addressed in a speech written by Jonson, which condemned courtly corruption (“The base and guiltie bribes of guiltier men”) and courtly artifice (“Thy Court be free / No lesse from Enuie, then from Flatterie”). 4 The Venetian Ambassador to England, Nicolo Molin, describes the festivities and their preparation in detail, including the releasing of prisoners, the removal “to another prison” of the four conspirators of the “Main Plot,” who had been spared by the King’s clemency, the passage of the cortège up the Thames and the procession of the King through the city, “preceded by all the magistrates of the City, the Court functionaries, the clergy, Bishops and Archbishops, Earls, Marquises, Barons and knights, superbly apparelled and clad in silk of gold, with pearl embroideries; a right royal show.” 5 Since the “King’s Men,” which had been licensed on 19 May 1603 and of which Shakespeare was a principal member, were allocated four yards of red cloth for the occasion, he may well have been part of the procession, which is reported to have extended some three miles.

Sonnet 123 opens with a firm remonstrance to time (“No! Time”), forbidding it to brag that the poet is subject to change (“thou shalt not bost that I doe change”). Although pyramids were built in antiquity as memorials to defy time, they become, despite their original purpose, registers of time. Any contemporary pyramids, that have been “buylt vp with newer might,” either constructed with a more recent strength or with Jonson’s more recent “Mechanick” expertise, are to the poet “nothing nouell, nothing strange.” They are the “dressings of a former sight:” they merely re-present in a new garb or garnish that which was seen in the past.

The assertion, “Our dates are breefe,” broadens the sonnet’s scope. The limited lease on life awarded to humans has a short-term date; “breefe” (from brevis = brief) is associated with registers through its plural form, brevia = register, so anticipating time’s “registers” below. 6 Given human transience, “we admire, / What thou dost foyst vpon vs that is ould.” To “foyst” is to ‘trick,’ as in a sleight of hand; hence humans admire the way time deceives them with older things. Humans make “them,” either “dates” or old things, “borne to our desire:” either they refashion, as in bearing a child again, old things into what they want them to be, or they record old things (“borne” as in ‘witness borne’) as they want them to be. They do this in preference to thinking they have already heard these things “told,” either talked about or ‘counted’ as in a record.

The poet adamantly resists both time and time’s “registers” (from regestum or re + gerere = to carry back). 7 The “registers” the poet rejects are firstly the pyramids but also all records or writings found both on ancient and especially on modern pyramids like Jonson’s. He dismisses both the present and the past and the earlier admiration of them (“Not wondring at the present, nor the past”), because both time’s “records” and the records now seen (“what we see”) are false (“doth lie”). All things are made of relative worth by time’s quick passing (“thy continuall hast”): both past and present records are variably received according to time. The poet’s final avowal (“This I doe vow”) is that he “will be true dispight thy syeth and thee.” His truth is in contrast to the fickle lying of time’s records. While time’s scythe is operated by the same hand that palmed off old things earlier, the implement that the poet here scorns is much more savage.


123.1. Stephen Harrison, The Archs of Triumph Erected in honor of the High and mighty prince. James. the first of that name. King, of England. and sixt of Scotland. at his Maiesties Entrance and passage through his Honorable Citty & Chamber of London vpon the 15 day of March 1603 (London: John Windet, 1604) C1r, D1r, E1r, B1r, K1r.

123.2. Thomas Dekker, The Whole Magnifycent Entertainment: Given to King James, Queene Anne his wife, and Henry Frederick the Prince; upon the day of his majesties Triumphant Passage (from the Tower) through his Honorable Citie (and Chamber) of London, the 15. of March, 1603 (London: E[dward] Allde, 1604) E2r-v & F1r.

123.3. Ben Jonson, B. Jon: His Part of King James his Royall and Magnificent Entertainement through his Honorable Cittie of London, Thurseday the 15. of March. 1603 (London: Edward Blount, 1604) D3v-D4r.

123.4. Jonson, Entertainement E1r-v.

123.5. Brown 139.

123.6. Huloets Dictionarie gives for “Registers,” “Tabulae . . Breuia.”

123.7. See Thomas, Dictionarium regero, “To carry againe . . to put in writing that which one hath read or heard.”