Sonnet 60

Shakespeare Sonnet 60

LIke as the waues make towards the pibled ſhore,
So do our minuites haſten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In ſequent toile all forwards do contend.
Natiuity once in the maine of light,
Crawles to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipſes gainſt his glory fight,
And time that gaue, doth now his gift confound.
Time doth tranſfixe the floriſh ſet on youth,
And delues the paralels in beauties brow,
Feedes on the rarities of natures truth,
And nothing ſtands but for his ſieth to mow.
And yet to times in hope, my verſe ſhall ſtand
Praiſing thy worth, diſpight his cruell hand.

It has been often pointed out that Sonnet 60, dealing with time and minutes, is appropriately placed at number sixty. As elsewhere in the sequence Shakespeare here shows a working knowledge of Ovid’s original Metamorphoses greater than Golding’s translation could have afforded him. He has drawn upon two adjoining passages in the “Pythagorean” section of Book 15. The first treats of time and change:

All things flow and every image is formed as passing; the times themselves also slide by with continuous movement, no differently than a river, for neither a river nor the fleeting hour can stop. But as (“sic”) a wave is pushed (“inpellitur”) by a wave, and as the first wave (“prior”) is pushed (“urgetur”) by the one following and itself pushes (“urget”) the one ahead (“prior”), so (“ut”) times flee in equal measure and are sequent (“sequuntur”) in equal measure and are always new. For what was earlier is now left behind, and what once hadn’t been comes to be, and every minute (“momenta”) is made anew. . . 1

Shakespeare’s opening “Like as  . . So” imitates Ovid’s metaphoric construction, “ut . . sic.” The single-minded determination of “make towards” anticipates line 2’s “hasten,” while “pibled” intends ‘pebbled’ or ‘shingly.’ The “minuites” of “our minuites hasten to their end” translates Ovid’s “momenta,” instants of time, which Golding, expanding the Pauline, “in momento, in ictu oculi” (“In a moment, in the twynklyng of an eye;” 1 Cor. 15.52; BB), renders as “Eche twinkling of an eye / Dooth change.” 2 Shakespeare’s minutes “hasten” toward their doom, because they are purposed always to run out. The next two lines are a succinct but accurate rendering of Ovid’s image of time as a sequence of waves. Each wave’s urgency repeats Ovid’s double “urgetur”/“urget.”  A wave does roll over the one that “goes before,” pushed by that which is sequent (“sequuntur”); Shakespeare’s “toile” is similarly “sequent” or in a sequence, while his “contend,” recalls Ovid’s “inpellitur” and anticipates the idea of conflict in “fight” and “paralels.”

The second Ovidian section deals with human ages:

An infant, brought forth into light (“editus in lucem . . infans”), lies devoid of strength; soon, becoming four-footed (“mox quadrupes”), he uses his limbs as wild beasts do. A little later, hesitantly and with wobbling legs, with some effort he stands with the aid of his sinews; from there, strong and swift, he crosses (“transit”) into the time of youth (“spatium iuventae”) and, with the years of middle age complete, slides downward through a journey into failing (“occiduae,” setting as in the sun) old age. He has ruined the things of ages and breaks down former strengths. 3

Shakespeare uses Ovid’s “editus in lucem . . infans” (‘An infant, brought forth into light’) for his “Natiuity once in the maine of light.” “Natiuity” means ‘new born child,’ the abstract often being substituted for the actual (compare Salkeld’s definition, “Natiuitie, or first instant of our coming to light”). 4 The astrological significance of “Natiuity” meaning ‘horoscope’ cannot be dismissed. A “maine of light” is a ‘broad expanse of light,’ and, since it is used of the ocean, it links this quatrain back to the first. “Crawles to maturity” evokes Ovid’s infant not yet standing upright and on all fours (“quadrupes” or four-footed) and suggests the slow passing of time that marks childhood. The child thus arrives at “maturity wherewith being crown’d;” ‘crowned’ can be used of perfection, of an infant, who is ‘crowned’ when emerging into “light,” and of a flower, which is also  technically “crowned,” thus anticipating “florish.” “Crooked eclipses” are partial eclipses in the shape of a crook (looking forward to the shape of the “sieth” that time’s hand will wield), which occur when light is obscured and glory begins to fade. “Crooked” evokes the image of ‘bowed’ old men and, as ‘bent’ or ‘perverse,’ suggests the astrological forces, which strive against man’s glory. The battle image of “contend” is picked up in “fight.” The octet’s final aphorism is balanced on the caesura: “time that gaue, doth now his gift confound:” ‘time that brought forth life now brings that gift to ruin.’

The sestet expands the actions of time: it “doth transfix the florish set on youth.” To “transfix” retained in the 16th century its Latinate meaning ‘to bring to an end’ (see Cooper, “transfigo [transfixum] to make an ende; to finish”). 5 A “florish” (from flos = a flower, with its heraldic suggestion of the fleury or armorial fleur de luce) is either the highest degree of perfection, hence the flower of youth that time cuts down, or it is the extra bloom that only youth possesses, to which time makes an end. (The sense of a flowery handwriting is probably also present and, if so, time’s transfixing is a crossing out of a florish.) 6 The choice of “set” suggests ‘set’ as a flower might be, ‘set’ as might occur when attaching armorial insignia or regalia to a body, or ‘set’ as in ‘fixed fast.’ Finally, since battle-lines are “set,” it anticipates the coming “paralels.”

Time digs or etches wrinkles in the brow of beauty (“delues the paralels in beauties brow”); “paralels” are the shape of paired wrinkles but are also military trenches, continuing the martial motif (see Sonnet 2.2, “digge deep trenches in thy beauties field,” and Sonnet 22.3, “times forrwes”). Time “Feedes on the rarities of natures truth,” an expansion of Ovid’s “tempus edax rerum,” which occurs in his Pythagorean section on time and which Shakespeare renders as “Deuouring time” in Sonnet 19; 7  “rarities” are things ‘seldom occurring’ and thus ‘precious treasures,’ which the truth of nature provides. The conclusion is that “nothing stands but for his sieth to mow.” The sole purpose for a thing’s existence, or for its standing upright in “glory,” is so that time, the reaper, can cut it down with his scythe. The indiscriminate nature of the cutting is suggested by “mow” (compare Sonnet 12.13, “And nothing gainst Times sieth can make defence”). The couplet contains the first reference to the youth and holds out only a slim hope: “And yet to times in hope.” It might just be possible that, in times future, his verse extolling the youth’s worth “shall stand,” despite the operation of time’s “cruell hand.”


60.1. Ovid, Met. 15.178-185:

cuncta fluunt, omnisque vagans formatur imago;
ipsa quoque adsiduo labuntur tempora motu,
non secus ac flumen; neque enim consistere flumen
nec levis hora potest: sed ut unda inpellitur unda
urgeturque prior veniente urgetque priorem,
tempora sic fugiunt pariter pariterque sequuntur
et nova sunt semper; nam quod fuit ante, relictum est,
fitque, quod haut fuerat, momentaque cuncta novantur. . .

60.2. Golding 15.205-06.

60.3. Ovid, Met. 15.221-229:

editus in lucem iacuit sine viribus infans;
mox quadrupes rituque tulit sua membra ferarum,
paulatimque tremens et nondum poplite firmo
constitit adiutis aliquo conamine nervis.
inde valens veloxque fuit spatiumque iuventae
transit et emeritis medii quoque temporis annis
labitur occiduae per iter declive senectae.
subruit haec aevi demoliturque prioris

60.4. John Salkeld, A Treatise of Angels. Of the Nature, Essence, Place, Power, Science, Will, Apparitions, Grace, Sinne, and all other Proprieties of Angels (London: T[homas] S[nodham], 1613) 276.

60.5. Cooper, Thesaurus  transfigo.

60.6. See Florio, “Traffiggere . . to transfix . . or strike quite through.” For an early use of a calligraphical flourish see Thomas Lodge’s comment: “The schoolman that with heedlesse florish writes, / Refines his fault, if thou direct his eie: / And then againe with wonder he endites / Such sweete sententious lines, as neuer die.” (Thomas Lodge, Scillaes Metamorphosis: Enterlaced with the vnfortunate loue of Glaucus, Whereunto is annexed the delectable discourse of the discontented Satyre: with sundrie other most absolute Poems and Sonnets (London: Richard Jones, 1589) D3r).

60.7. Ovid, Met. 15.234.