Sonnet 59

Shakespeare Sonnet 59

IF their bee nothing new, but that which is,
Hath beene before, how are our braines  beguild,
Which laboring for inuention beare amiſſe
The ſecond burthen of a former child?
Oh that record could with a back-ward looke,
Euen of fiue hundreth courſes of the Sunne,
Show me your image in ſome antique booke,
Since minde at firſt in carrecter was done.
That I might ſee what the old world could ſay,
To this compoſed wonder of your frame,
Whether we are mended, or where better they,
Or whether reuolution be the ſame.
Oh ſure I am the wits of former daies,
To ſubiects worſe haue giuen admiring praiſe.

Sonnets built on reckonings of time were common in sequences and their placement often deliberate: Spenser’s Amoretti 60, for example, cites “Mars [that] in three score yeares doth run his spheare” as an example of a planet’s revolution or “the sundry yeare: / in which her circles voyage is fulfild.” Sonnet 59 works the conceit of ages rising and dying, an idea awarded to Pythagoras by Ovid in Metamorphoses in a section preceded by his account of the phoenix’ lifespan of “full fyve hundred yeeres” (“quinque suae complevit saecula vitae”). 1 Five hundred years was thought the limit of an age or kingdom, after which it survived only in records. William Covell in Polimanteia, for example, gives numerous examples of 500 year spans to support the argument that

The histories of all times doe teach vs . . that the most parte of the greatest kingdomes, haue not endured fiue hundred yeares. (Sidenote: 500. yeares the common period of a Kingdome in former time.) Many haue light short of that full time: none or very few haue passed it, but haue fallen either at that period, or not long before it. 2

Sonnet 59’s opening adage, “If their bee nothing new, but that which is, / Hath beene before,” however, echoes most strongly the idea’s locus biblicus:

All things are full of labour . . (Sidenote: He speaketh of times and seasons, and things done in them, which as they haue bene in times past, so come they to passe againe.) What is it that hath bene? that that shalbe: and what is it that hath bene done? that which shalbe done: and there is no newe thing vnder the sunne. Is there any thing, whereof one may say, Beholde this, it is newe? it hath bene already in the olde time that was before vs. There is no memorie of the former, neither shall there be a remembrance of the latter that shalbe, with them that shall come after. (Eccles. 1.8-11; GV)

‘There is nothing new under the sun’ became an Elizabethan proverb.

If, the poet asks, nothing new ever exists and if everything that exists has been before (“but” acts as an intensifier introducing an expansion), then our brains have been cheated (“beguild”), because they strive (“labour,” echoing Ecclesiasties, “all things are full of labour”) to discover new things (“inuention,” but hinting at ‘invention’ as the first part of rhetoric), only to find that they “beare amisse,” they mistakenly bring to birth a conception they think newly born, which in fact has already been born (“the second burthen of a former child”); “burthen” intends ‘burden,’ a secunda gravida, but puns on ‘birthin’’ and sustains the conceit of poetic childbirth, “labouring,” “beare,” “child.”

If there were nothing new, then a more recent “record” or ‘writing out’ could look backwards over “fiue hundredth courses of the Sunne.” “Euen” suggests the largest of spans, while “courses” are not five hundred daily spans but five hundred yearly ones, the accepted length of an age (see above). Such a retrospective exercise would uncover the friend’s image in an “antique book” at a time close to when the remembrance of things was first written down in characters (“in carrecter”).

The leaping of time would enable the poet to see what the old world would write in response to the “composed wonder of your frame;” “frame” is the youth’s shape or form, while “composed” intends ‘well-proportioned,’ but hints at poetic composition (compare TGV 3.2.69, “walefull Sonnets, whose composed Rimes”). He could determine whether the modern age has improved (“Whether we are mended”) or whether (“where” = whe’er) the older age was better, or whether the “reuolution be the same,” whether the cycle returning to its same position produces the same result. A “reuolution” is the time taken by the heavenly bodies to complete a full orbit or “course.” Whatever he might uncover, he remains certain (“Oh sure I am”) that poets of earlier times (“former daies”) have written poems of admiration (contrasting with the “wonder” of the poet’s subject) to lesser “subiects” discovered by “inuention.”


59.1. Golding 15.436 & 463ff; Ovid, Met. 15.395 & 431-48.

59.2. William Covell, Polimanteia, or, The meanes lawfull and vnlawfull, to Iudge of the Fall of a Common-wealth, Against the friuolous and foolish coniectures of this age (London: John Legatt, 1595) D3r.

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