Sonnet 19

Shakespeare Sonnet 19

DEuouring time blunt thou the Lyons pawes,
And make the earth deuoure her owne ſweet brood,
Plucke the keene teeth from the fierce Tygers yawes,
And burne the long liu’d Phænix in her blood,
Make glad and ſorry ſeaſons as thou fleet’ſt,                          flee’st (?)
And do what ere thou wilt ſwift-footed time
To the wide world and all her fading ſweets:
But I forbid thee one moſt hainous crime,
O carue not with thy howers my loues faire brow,
Nor draw noe lines there with thine antique pen,
Him in thy courſe vntainted doe allow,
For beauties patterne to ſucceding men.
Yet doe thy worſt ould Time diſpight thy wrong,
My loue ſhall in my verſe euer liue young.

Sonnet 19 rounds off the cycle of sonnets urging the youth to beget an heir. (The number 19 was the number of years, beyond which Prime could not extend [“Prime neuer exceedeth the number of 19”]. The Prime or Golden Number [“The pryme is the time of .19. yeres”] in the metonic calendar was the course of Julian yeares required for the moon to complete the cycle in which it “returneth to the selfe same day of the yeere of the Sunne: and therefore it is called the Cycle of the Moone, in ye which the Solstices & Equinoctials do returne to al one point in the Zodiaque.” The Prime was always attached to the ecclesiastical calendar in the Book of Common Prayer to assist in calculating the time of Easter.) 1

The sonnet addresses time directly as “Deuouring time,” a rendering of the often-used Ovidian phrase, “Tempus edax,” which became the sonneteer’s stock expression. 2 It is comprised of a series of imperatives, in which time is commanded to disempower its own instruments: it must “blunt . . the Lyons pawes;” it must force mother earth (“her”) to “deuoure” that to which she has given birth (“owne sweet brood,” with its echo of the Book of Common Prayer’s “Order for the Burial of the Dead,” “earth to earth”). Time is ordered to pull (“plucke”) the tiger’s “keene teeth,” its ‘eager,’ its ‘sharp,’ and its ‘fierce’ (as in a keen tiger) teeth from the tiger’s jaw. Fourthly, and impossibly, time is required to “burne the long, liu’d Phænix in her blood.” The fabulous phoenix was an emblem of immortality: only one existed at a time and, having burnt itself on a pyre, it rose again from its ashes. Its span of years was variously reported as between 500 and 1000 years: Pliny has the phoenix as male and living 660 years, Ovid five centuries, while Whitney claims it “dothe liue vntill a thousande yeares be ronne.” 3 Here time is to control the phoenix rather than the phoenix defeat time; “in her blood” intends either that the phoenix’ blood be the fuel in which she is burnt, or, as in the hunting phrase, “in blood,” it means ‘while full of life.’

As time speeds by (“fleet’st,” or, if “flee’st,” then the proverbial ‘time flies’ or ‘tempus fugit’), it must vary the seasons (“make glad and sorry seasons”), not only cycles of nature but periods of human moods. (Shakespeare speaks of youth who “fleet” or ‘while away’ time in AYL 1.1.124: “they say many yong Gentlemen . . fleet the time carelesly as they did in the golden world.”) The penultimate command verges on the careless or dismissive: “do what ere thou wilt.” The epithet “swift-footed time” was commonplace, as was “the wide world,” while the feminine “all her fading sweets” recalls the earth’s “sweet brood.” 4

Finally the poet denies time a singular, most grievous sin (“one most hainous crime”). It must “carue not with thy howers my loues faire brow.” In associating crime and wrinkles Shakespeare has drawn on Ovid’s Latin adage, “de rugis crimina multa cadunt” (‘from wrinkles many crimes are exposed’), rendered by Marlowe as “wrinckles in beauty is a grieuous fault.” 5 The hours must not etch into the beloved’s brow any wrinkle (compare Sonnet 63.3-4, “When houres haue . . fild his brow / With lines and wrinkles”). Nor must time’s “antique pen,” both its ‘ancient’ and its ‘antic’ or crazy pen, “draw . . lines there,” a further Latinism, “in fronte contrahere rugas” (‘in the brow to draw wrinkles’). 6 Since time is often figured as feathered, then a pen (penna = feather) is appropriate. Daniel employs the same etymological pun, “Swift speedy Time, feathred with flying howers, / Dissolues the beautie of the fairest brow.” 7

Time must allow the youth to remain “vntainted” in its “course;” “vntainted” (from tangere = to touch) firstly intends ‘untouched’ or ‘unaffected’ by the course of time. Secondly “vntainted” means without ‘taint’ or ‘spot’ as in the Pauline passage read in the Book of Common Prayer’s “Rite of Marriage,” Ephesians 5.27, where spouses, like the Church, are acclaimed as “not hauing spot or wrinkle” (GV). 8 Thirdly “vntainted” evokes the course of a tilt-yard and the victory shout ‘attaint’ or a hit; hence time must not claim victory over the youth. He will remain impervious to its instruments, chisel, pen or lance, so that (“For”) he might be “beauties pattern to succeeding men,” the poet’s final oblique call to him to father children. During the 16th century a ‘pattern,’ meaning a ‘template’ or ‘copy,’ was spelled ‘patron’ (from pater / patris = father) and a separate spelling, ‘pattern,’ occurred only late in the century. (Shakespeare plays with the same ambiguity in Sonnet 98.12.) The youth’s beauty will prove a “pattern” or matrix, whose lines will copied by successive generations, but the poet hints at his being a ‘patron,’ whose line will be continued in subsequent generations.

The couplet dismisses time’s efforts (“Yet doe thy worst ould Time”). Whatever injuries or faults (“wrongs”) time might commit, the poet’s “loue,” both his affection and the beloved, will prevail in the poet’s lines (“verse”) as ever fresh and never growing old (“euer liue young”). (The final line with its stress on ‘evér’ appears awkward.)


19.1. The Booke of Common Prayer (London: Christopher Barker, 1582). See William Bourne, A Regiment for the Sea (London: Thomas Hacket, 1574) C2r, “The Prime or Golden Number, is the tyme of 19 yeares, in the which tyme the Moone maketh all her chaunges or coniunctions with the Sunne, and when all these .19. yeares be expired, then she beginneth againe,” and John Davis, The Seamans Secrets. Deuided into 2 partes, wherein is taught the three kindes of Sayling, Horizontall, Paradoxall, and sayling vpon a great Circle (London: Thomas Dawson, 1595) A3v-A4r, “Of the prime or Golden number. The Prime is the space of 19. yeeres, in which time ye moone performeth all the varieties of her motion  with the sunne, and at the end of 19. yeres beginneth the same reuolution againe, therefore the Prime neuer exceedeth the number of 19. and this prime doth alwaies begin in Ianuary, and thus / the prime is found: vnto the yeere of the Lord wherein you desire to know the prime adde 1. then deuide that number by 19. and the remaining number which commeth not into the quotient is the prime.”

19.2. See Ovid, Met. 15.258, “tempus edax rerum” (Golding 15.258, “tyme the eater vp of things). Compare Watson 77.16, “Time eats what ere the Moon can see below;” Drayton, Shepheardes Garland Eclogue 1.61-62, “Deuouring time;” Spenser, Amoretti 58.7, “deuouring tyme and changeful chance,” and Ruines of Time 420, “Deuour’d of Time.”

19.3. See Pliny, Hist. 10.2.2; Ovid, Met. 15.395, “haec ubi quinque suae complevit saecula vitae” (Golding 15.436, “And when that of his lyfe well full fyve hundred yeeres are past”); Whitney 177.

19.4. See Richard Linche, Diella, Certaine Sonnets, adioyned to the amorous Poeme of Dom Diego and Gineura (London: Henry Olney, 1596) 3.1, “Swift-footed Time.”

19.5. Ovid, Amores 1.8.46; Christopher Marlowe, Ouids Elegies: Three Bookes. By C[hristopher] M[arlowe]. Epigrames by I[ohn] D[avies] (London?: s.n., post 1602) 1.8.46.

19.6. Varro, De Re Rustica 1.2.26; compare Vergil, Aen. 7.417, “frontem . . rugis arat” (‘carves the brow with wrinkles’) or Drayton, Shepheardes Garland Eclogue 2.21-22, “My dreadful thoughts been drawen vpon my face, / In blotted lines with ages iron pen.”

19.7. Daniel, Delia (1592) 31. 10-11.

19.8. The Geneva Version’s gloss to Eph. 5.27, with a race or course in mind, runs, “The Church as it is considered in it selfe, shall not be without wrincle, before it come to the marke it shooteth at for while it is in this life, it runneth in a race: but if it be considered in Christ, it is cleane and without wrincle.”