Sonnet 63

Shakespeare Sonnet 63

AGainſt my loue ſhall be as I am now
With times iniurious hand chruſht and ore-worne,
When houres haue dreind his blood and fild his brow
With lines and wrincles, when his youthfull morne
Hath trauaild on to Ages ſteepie night,
And all thoſe beauties whereof now he’s King
Are vaniſhing, or vaniſht out of ſight,
Stealing away the treaſure of his Spring.
For ſuch a time do I now fortifie
Againſt confounding Ages cruell knife,
That he ſhall neuer cut from memory
My ſweet loues beauty, though my louers life.
His beautie ſhall in theſe blacke lines be ſeene,
And they ſhall liue, and he in them ſtill greene.

Sonnet 63 lies at the mid-point of the 126 sonnets directed to the youth; since 63 was also the number of the ‘great climacteric,’ the product of seven and nine, the section of sonnets to the youth comprises a double climacteric. The ‘great climacteric’ was an especially pivotal moment in life, often portending death. Cotgrave’s Dictionarie defines it, “The Climatericall yeare; euerie seuenth, or ninth, or the 63 yeare of a mans life; all very dangerous, but the last most,” and, “The Climatericall, or dangerous, yeare of 63, at which age diuers worthie men haue died.” 1 Its observance was forbidden by Puritan divines such as William Perkins who condemned those who “obserue Planetarie houres, and Climactericall yeares.” 2

Sonnet 63, by comparison with Sonnet 60, is indebted to Golding’s translation of Book 15 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses rather than the original. The sonnet foresees a time when the beloved, no longer youthful, will have arrived at the poet’s aged state. Golding’s rendering of Ovid’s passage treating of the youthful and late stages of life runs,

From that tyme growing strong and swift, he passeth foorth the space
Of youth: and also wearing out his middle age apace,
Through drooping ages steepye path he ronneth out his race.
This age dooth undermyne the strength of former yeares, and throwes
It downe.

As an example of old age looking back, Helen is cited,

And Helen when shee saw her aged wrincles in
A glasse wept also: musing in herself what men had seene,
That by two noble princes sonnes shee twyce had ravisht beene.

The section concludes with the description of time,

Thou tyme the eater up of things, and age of spyghtfull teene,
Destroy all things.3

Sonnet 63’s opening prudential caution (“Against my loue”) parallels the opening to the earlier climacteric sonnet, Sonnet 49 (“Against that time”) with its stock-taking motif and its “audite.” Here the poet will prepare against a time when the youth (“my loue”) will be as the poet now is. It is a time when he will be “With times iniurious hand chrusht and ore-worne;” “iniurious” is a hand that inflicts injury willfully and unjustly (from iniuriosus = in + ius = unjust); “chrusht and ore-worne” suggests clothing that is creased and worn out or skin that is wrinkled and the worse for wear. (Shakespeare may have had Spenser’s Ruines of Rome: by Bellay in mind, “The which iniurious time hath quite outworne.”) 4 Time’s instruments are its “houres,” including the classical ‘Horae,’ normally beneficent guardians of the seasons, but here pictured as succubi drawing out the life force, for they have “dreind his blood,” leaving the skin pallid and wizened. The hours have “fild his brow / With lines and wrincles.” The “wrincles” copy Golding’s “aged wrincles” (Ovid’s “rugas . . aniles”), while “fild” can be read as ‘filled’ in opposition to “dreind,” or as ‘filed’ or ‘engraved’ (see Sonnets 17.2 and 85.4), or aphetically as ‘’filed’ or ‘defiled’ as a succubus does.

The poet takes precautions against a time, “when his youthfull morne / Hath trauaild on to Ages steepie night,” a parallel to Ovid’s passage, which ‘slides downward through a journey into failing (“occiduae,” setting as in the sun) old age’ (“labitur occiduae per iter declive senectae”). Golding’s “steepye path” keeps the integrity of the Ovidian metaphor. In Shakespeare’s “Ages steepie night” the “steepie,” removed from the “iter,” makes less immediate sense, although he does take the notion of night from “occidaue,” the sun’s setting into night, and will pick up the image of journey in “trauaild.” While everything in Ovid is gradual, Shakespeare’s “steepie” suggests ‘precipitate,’ the ‘darkness of age that falls suddenly on all as does the sun;’ “steepie,” as well, retains the secondary sense of night that ‘steeps’ or ‘soaks’ all things in itself – in opposition to “dreind” – while “trauaild” carries both senses of ‘journeyed’ and ‘toiled.’ All the beauties, of which the young man is now master (“king”), will then be either in the process of disappearing or will have already disappeared. “Stealing away” intends ‘burgling’ the youth’s present beauty (“treasure of his Spring”), although ‘stealing away from a crime’ is an initial reading.

The sestet recapitulates the opening preparedness: “For such a time” or ‘as a precaution against such a time’ the poet now builds a defence (“do I now fortifie;” compare Sonnet 16.3-4, where the youth is urged to “fortifie your selfe” against “this bloudie tirant time”). The poet’s action is “Against confounding Ages cruell knife,” an instrument akin to time’s scythe, both being “cruell;” “confounding” age is age that brings all to nought or that corrupts innocence. The poet’s purpose is to forestall age’s knife from excising from memory (“cut from memory”) the beauty of the beloved (“sweet loues beautie”), even though he (“Age”) will cut out or cut from memory the beloved’s life. Rather, he claims, the youth’s beauty will be seen inscribed and engraven (compare above “fild” and “cut”) in these inked “blacke lines” (compare “lines and wrincles”). The lines themselves will continue to “liue” and the friend will “liue” in them, ever “greene,” fresh as in “Spring,” or ‘innocent’ as in youth.

_________________________

63.1. Randle Cotgrave, A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (London: Adam Islip, 1611).

63.2. Perkins, Galatians 600.

63.3. Golding 15.247-59 passim. For Ovid, Met. 15.225-29 see Sonnet 60 notes; lines 232-5 are:

flet quoque, ut in speculo rugas adspexit aniles,
Tyndaris et secum, cur sit bis rapta, requirit.
tempus edax rerum, tuque, invidiosa vetustas,
omnia destruitis . .

(And [Helen,] the daughter of Tindarus, wept also as she looked upon her old woman’s wrinkles in the mirror as she thought about herself who had been twice ravished. And you, Time, the devourer of things, spiteful old man, you destroy all things.)

63.4. Edmund Spenser, Ruines of Rome: by Bellay, 370 in Complaints. Containing sundrie small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie (London: William Ponsonby, 1591); compare Ven. 133-5, “wrinckled old . . Ore-worne, despised, reumatique, and cold.”

Comments are closed.