Sonnet 2

Shakespeare Sonnet 2

WHen fortie Winters ſhall beſeige thy brow,
And digge deep trenches in thy beauties field,
Thy youthes proud liuery ſo gaz’d on now,
Wil be a totter’d weed of ſmal worth held:
Then being askt, where all thy beautie lies,
Where all the treaſure of thy luſty daies;
To ſay within thine owne deepe ſunken eyes,
Were an all-eating ſhame, and thriftleſſe praiſe.
How much more praiſe deſeru’d thy beauties vſe,
If thou couldſt anſwere this faire child of mine
Shall ſum my count, and make my old excuſe
Proouing his beautie by ſucceſſion thine.
This were to be new made when thou art ould,
And ſee thy blood warme when thou feel’ſt it could,

Sonnet 2 is a working of the sonneteers’ standard ‘siege’ conceit, turned to unconventional purpose. It opens by envisaging a time when “fortie Winters” will have laid siege to the youth’s brow. Forty was an indeterminate, large number with strong biblical precedents (it was associated with Noah, Moses, Elijah and Christ’s sojourn in the desert) and with the period of forty days’ service a knight enjoined of his tenant (or servant in livery), while “fortie winters” was the number required for a marriage of long-standing: see Puttenham’s example of the figure “Noema . . or close conceit:” “I thanke God in fortie winters that we haue liued together, neuer any of our neighbours set vs at one.” 1

The projected forty winters will “digge deep trenches;” trenches were dug during sieges, they are formed when a field is ploughed, and metaphorically are wrinkles etched in a brow. 2 The image was traditional from classical times, from Vergil (‘he ploughs the brow with furrows’) and Ovid (‘furrows which may plough your body will come already’) to Shakespeare’s contemporary, Drayton, “The time-plow’d furrowes in thy fairest field.” 3 The primary meaning of “field” is a battlefield where a siege might occur, but it retains its agricultural or husbandry sense, taken up later in “weed,” and is also an heraldic term for the surface of an escutcheon or shield, on which a “charge” is imposed. The colours of a servant’s “liuery” were those of an armorial shield’s field and principal charge, so the royal livery is scarlet trimmed with gold.

The youth’s “proud liuery” is the costume in which he is dressed or that which identifies him as youth. Liveries were distinctive clothing worn by retainers or soldiers and were generally uniforms that were not owned, implying that the youth’s beauty is not his own; “proud” is splendid, but Narcissus’ ‘stubborn pride’ (“dura superbia”), which precluded young men and women from embracing him, is also relevant, because the youth’s form, “so gaz’d on now,” by others but pertinently by himself, is akin to Narcissus’. 4 His livery will be a “totter’d weed,” a base plant that is past its prime and drooping, or a costume (“weed”) that is ragged or tattered. (Sonnet 26.11, “puts apparrell on my tottered louing,” draws on Horace’s depiction of Cupid as not dressed in ‘tattered weeds’ (“sine sordibus”). Whether ‘tottered’ or ‘tattered,’ the livery will be reckoned of little value.

At such a time the youth might be asked where all his “beautie” or all the treasure of his “lusty daies,” all that he has hoarded in himself and not put to use, might lie. If, self-absorbed in his gaze and refusing to be touched by others, he were to reply that his “treasure” could only be found in his “deepe sunken eyes,” eyes sunken with age and not resting under a straight brow, then it would be an “all-eating shame;” “deepe sunken” hints at a treasure deeply buried or lost in the deep. Like Sonnet 1 where the youth buries his “content” and eats or deprives the world of its due, his reply here would be a shame that consumes all things. It would be a “thriftlesse praise,” a praise without return and improvident.

The sestet proposes a better response (“How much more praise deseru’d thy beauties vse”), where “use” intends use of beauty, sexual use of beauty, or even usury or profit gained from beauty used thriftily. The reply is expressed as direct speech from the youth’s mouth: “this faire child of mine / Shall sum my count.” A child begotten by him would be the total of all his accounts, would ‘top off’ his account, or would sign off his account as a final audit. A child would justify the youth’s active lustiness in his old age (“make my old excuse”) by “proouing his beautie by succession thine.” The action of “proouing” is both a mathematical and legal confirming, while “succession” is both a physical and legal action. Begetting an heir (“This”), the youth in old age would be renewed (“be new made when thou art ould”). Then his “blood,” which is thinner and less warming in old age, would be made warm by gazing on his off-spring, or he would gaze on his issue (his “blood”) and see it warm (alive or “lusty”), even as he feels his blood cold.


2.1. George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (London: Richard Field, 1589) 193.

 2.2. Compare Tit. 5.2.23, “Witnesse these Trenches made by griefe and care.”

 2.3. Vergil, Aeneid 7. 417, “frontem rugis arat;” Ovid, Ars Amatoria 2.118, “jam venient rugae, quae tibi corpus arent;” Michael Drayton, The Shepheardes Garland, Fashioned in nine Eglogs. Rowlands Sacrifice to the nine Muses (London: Thomas Woodcocke, 1593) 9.46; compare Fulke Greville, Caelica 27 bis.7, “In beauties field” (Certaine Learned and Elegant Workes of the Right Honorable Fulke Lord Brooke (London: E[lizabeth] P[urslowe], 1633) 178.

2.4. Ovid, Met. 3.354; Golding 3.441-2.