WHen I conſider euery thing that growes
Holds in perfection but a little moment.
That this huge ſtage preſenteth nought but ſhowes
Whereon the Stars in ſecret influence comment.
When I perceiue that men as plants increaſe,
Cheared and checkt euen by the ſelfe-ſame skie:
Vaunt in their youthfull ſap, at height decreaſe,
And were their braue ſtate out of memory.
Then the conceit of this inconſtant ſtay,
Sets you moſt rich in youth before my ſight,
Where waſtfull time debateth with decay
To change your day of youth to ſullied night,
And all in war with Time for loue of you
As he takes from you, I ingraft you new.
Sonnets 15 and 16 comprise a pair, whose theme is one of husbandry and gardening. Sonnet 15 accepts from Sonnet 14 its conceit of astral influences, focussing on how they operate in the vegetable world. Sowing, planting and grafting (setting) were all conducted according to times laid down by almanacs and determined by phases of the moon and motions of the stars (including the zodiac), which were thought to affect their increase. It was an occult knowledge, Thomas Hill describing it in his Gardeners Labyrinth as “darke in sense.” He instructs that planting should occur
at a due time of the yeare, in the increase of the moone, shee occupying an apt place in the Zodiacke, in agreeable aspect of Saturne, and well placed in the scite of heauen. All these thus afore hand learned, and with diligence bestowed, procure the plantes the speedier to grow, and wax the bigger
and guides the gardener to the “yearly Almanackes,” which
do meruellously helpe the Gardeners in the election of times, for sowing, planting, and graffing, but especially in obseruing the moone, about the bestowing of plante, as when the moone increasing, occupieth Taurus and Aquarius. But if it be for the setting of yoong trees, let the same be done in the last quarter of the moone . . for so these speedier take roote in the earth . . But this diligently learne, that the seeds and Plantes increase the better, if any of these signes shall be ascending in the Eastangle, and that Mars neither beholdeth the Ascendent, orn (sic) the Moone by anie aspect, but shall be weakly standing in a weake place of the figure at that time. Here might many other rules, as touching the particular fauour and hinderance of the starres bee uttered, but that is not my intent. 1
The sonnet’s structure, of one extended sentence divided by “When,” “When” and “Then,” opens with the poet’s general observation: everything that grows keeps its perfection but momentarily (“but a little moment”); the choice of “consider” is likely deliberate, since it was thought to be of astrological origin (sidera = stars, hence to observe stars). The whole world is a stage that displays (“presenteth”) nothing but “showes,” both theatrical and floral displays. The metaphor of the world as a stage was commonplace, its renowned instance being Jacques’ speech beginning “All the world’s a stage” (AYL. 2.7.139), while the use of “nought” suggests their insubstantial and ephemeral hollowness. On them the “Stars in secret influence comment.” An ‘influence’ is an astrological inpouring of an occult kind, often unknown to the recipient; plants were said to increase or not through the streaming of a “constellation” which Hill says, “of the skilfull is named an influence of heauen.” 2 The stars are pictured as agents above, who devise what occurs below or cause it to be (the original Latinate meaning of “comment”) 3 or discuss what occurs below (less likely). The line of 12 syllables (like the 12 astrological signs) is either deliberate or an unusual mistake.
Just as plants increase (“Cheared,” Hill’s “fauoured,” but with a hint of a sidereal audience cheering) and are retarded in their growth (“check,” Hill’s “hinderance”) so also, the poet observes, are men: both are affected by the “selfe-same skie.” They ‘revel in’ or ‘flaunt’ (“Vaunt”) their youthful “sap,” their vigour or life-force; at their acme they diminish; then either they wear what was their state of glory (“braue state,” with a hint of finery or splendid costumery) only as a memory (“out of memory”), or they ‘wear out’ or cause their glorious state to disappear from memory.
Then the poet considers the changeable nature of life, “the conceit of this inconstant stay” (“stay” as in “a little moment” above; in Sonnet 26 the youth’s “conceipt” will act in place of the “star that guides my mouing”). The thought “Sets you most rich in youth before my sight.” A first reading of “Sets” is ‘establishes you who are most rich in youth before my sight.’ But to ‘set’ also meant not only to ‘plant’ (see Sonnet 16) but to ‘graft’ (see Cooper, “a graffe or set of a young tree”). 4 The poet’s observation about transience, then, ‘grafts the friend splendidly to his youthfulness as the poet watches.’ In his mind’s eye “wastefull time debateth with decay;” “time” is that which lays waste or which is full of waste, while “debateth” recalls the second use of “comment.” Time and decay fight over how to reduce the height of the youth’s youthfulness (“your day of youth”) to soiled darkness (“sullied night;” the line’s chequered light/black recalling the earlier “checkt”).
In the couplet the poet affirms that he will strive against time with all his being (“And all in war with Time”) for the sake of or out of love for the youth (“for loue of you”). As time diminishes the youth (“As he takes from you”), the poet will “ingraft you new;” he will attach the youth to new stock through ‘grafting,’ that of the gardener but also that of the poet, who ‘engrafting’ or engraving (γραφειν means to write or engrave) the youth in his writing keeps him ever new. The couplet looks forward to the opening of Sonnet 16, “But wherefore do not you a mightier waie . .”
15.1. Thomas Hill, The Gardeners Labyrinth. Containing a discourse of the Gardeners life, in the yearly trauels to be bestowed on his plot of earth, for the vse of a Garden: with instructions for the choise of seedes, apt times for sowing, setting, planting, and watering, and the vessels and instrumentes seruing to that vse and purpose (London: Adam Islip, 1594) 42.
15.2. Hill 34.
15.3. See Cooper, Thesaurus commentus, “That inuenteth or deuiseth.”
15.4. Cooper, Thesaurus semen; compare “semina, Sets: graffes” and “Emplastrare, To take the bud of from a tree with the barke round about it, and set the same on another tree with a plaister of clay outware, to haue it prooue as a graffe.”