Sonnet 16

Shakespeare Sonnet 16

BVt wherefore do not you a mightier waie
Make warre vppon this bloudie tirant time?
And fortifie your ſelfe in your decay
With meanes more bleſſed then my barren rime?
Now ſtand you on the top of happie houres,
And many maiden gardens yet vnſet,
With vertuous wiſh would beare your liuing flowers,
Much liker then your painted counterfeit:
So ſhould the lines of life that life repaire
Which this (Times penſel or my pupill pen)
Neither in inward worth nor outward faire
Can make you liue your ſelfe in eies of men,
To giue away your ſelfe, keeps your ſelfe ſtill,
And you muſt liue drawne by your owne ſweet ſkill,

Sonnet 16 continues on from Sonnet 15 (“But wherefore”) and asks why the youth doesn’t strive more forcefully (“a mightier waie”) to wage war against “this bloudie tirant time?” Defining time as a ‘tyrant’ was frequent, see Samuel Daniel, Delia 30.7, where beauty “Must yeeld vp all to tyrant times desire / Then fade those flowers that deckt her pride so long.” 1 Why, the poet continues, doesn’t the youth take precautions as he declines (“fortifie your selfe in your decay”) by some more fruitful (“blessed”) means than his own sterile efforts (“barren rime”)? The instruction to “fortifie” contrasts with the poet’s attempts to ‘fortify’ the youth or to ‘record him in writing.’ 2

The poet pictures the youth standing “on the top of happie houres;” a ‘happy hour’ was the time when the stars or the wheel of fortune blessed an individual. (Compare Ariosto, Orlando Furioso 45.2.1-4:

On tother side the more a man is pressed,
And vtterly ou’rthrowne by Fortunes lowre,
The sooner comes his state to be redressed,
When wheele shal turne and bring the happy houre. 3

The youth, standing on the top of the “happie houres,” controls his destiny and, since the “happy hour” was used of both nuptials and childbirth, controls the moment when he might beget children. Equally there are “many maiden gardens yet vnset.” A “maiden garden” is a womb yet to be made fruitful and evokes the figure of the hortus conclusus, used earlier in Sonnet 3, which derived from the Song of Solomon, “My sister my spouse is as a garden inclosed, as a spring shut vp, and a fountaine sealed vp” (4.2; GV). In medieval and Renaissance iconography, art and gardens the hortus conclusus was associated with the womb of the Virgin and, through the Song’s associated verse, “Thou art all faire, my loue, and there is no spot (“macula”) in thee” (4.7; GV), with her sinlessness and ever-inclosed maidenhood, which was impervious to the touch of time. To “set” a garden was to ‘sow’ it (compare Sonnet 15 where it is used of grafting); an “vnset” garden is one waiting to be planted, but which ‘chastely’ or ‘with grace’ desires (“vertuous wish”) that it give birth to the youth’s “liuing flowers,” self-generated new copies which are of a greater likeness than any “painted counterfeit,” either a secondary image of him wrought in time’s garden or in the poet’s rhyme, anticipating the painting image to follow.

Then, through children the “lines of life” would “repaire” his life, make it anew or newly father it (re + père). Classically the “lines of life” are the duration of a life determined by the length of thread spun by the Fates, specifically Lachesis: hence the length of the youth’s life during which he might beget life. Biblically the ‘line of life’ is the length by which an inheritance is determined, deriving from Ps. 16, “The Lorde is the portion of mine inheritance . . The lines are fallen vnto me in pleasant places: yea, I haue a faire heritage” (5-6 (GV); hence the youth’s lineage during which life might continue to be begotten. Thirdly the “lines of life” are the fate-lines found on the hand (and face); 4 by popular demand they were read by palmists so that the young could determine their matrimonial future, even if the practice was always subject to censure: George Hakewill in The Vanitie of the eie condemns “fortune-tellers, who vndertake to foretell men and womens marriages and fortunes by their pretended art of Phisiognimie and chiromancy, the one consisting in beholding, the traies of the visage, & the other the lines of the hande;” 5 so the “lines of life” are the youth’s physical traits which forecast and in which are contained his future progeny. Compared to his physical off-spring (“this”) the depictions of time’s pencil or the poet’s novice pen (“pupill”) are ineffectual. A pencil was both a small painter’s brush (from peniculus = a small penis or tail) and a tool to engrave letters, although graphite pencils bound in wax, string or even wood were known in the 16th century; Florio has under “Stile,” “a marking-stone, or a pensill.” 6 The efforts of time and the poet to depict the youth’s inner and outer beauty cannot bring the youth to life (“can make you liue”) in the eyes of men (compare the claim in Sonnet 81.8, “When you entombed in mens eyes shall lye”). By giving himself away in sexual union or in marriage (“giue away your selfe”) the youth will paradoxically continue to preserve himself (“keeps your selfe still”). Continuing both the painterly and the fatherly image his lineage must be delineated (“drawne”) by his own creative skill (“your owne sweet skill”).


16.1. Daniel, Delia (1592) D1r.

16.2. OED fortify 5b; see Sonnet 63.9.

16.3 Lodovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse, by Sr Iohn Harington (London: Richard Field, 1607) 384.

16.4. Compare Gobbo, who in MV looks at his palm and exclaims, “I shall haue good fortune; goe too, here’s a simple line of life, here’s a small trifle of wiues” (2.2.148).

16.5. George Hakewill, The Vanitie of the eie (Oxford: Ioseph Barnes, 2nd edition, 1608) 112.

16.6. Compare Carew, World 13, “When I first tooke pensill in hand to draw the lineaments of this present Apologie, wherein I haue shadowed out a world of wonders;” Drayton, Peirs Gaueston 290, “With the blacke pensill of defame is blotted;” or the Countess of Pembroke’s translation of Ps. 83.45, “So paint their daunted face, / With pencell of disgrace.”