Sonnet 64

Shakespeare Sonnet 64

WHen I haue ſeene by times fell hand defaced
The rich proud coſt of outworne buried age,
When ſometime loftie towers I ſee downe raſed,
And braſſe eternall ſlaue to mortall rage.
When I haue ſeene the hungry Ocean gaine
Aduantage on the Kingdome of the ſhoare,
And the firme ſoile win of the watry maine,
Increaſing ſtore with loſſe, and loſſe with ſtore.
When I haue ſeene ſuch interchange of ſtate,
Or ſtate it ſelfe confounded, to decay,
Ruine hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my loue away.
This thought is as a death which cannot chooſe
But weepe to haue, that which it feares to looſe.

To “ruminate” on antiquities (“ruminari antiquitates”) and on ruins was an established literary convention from classical times. 1 In the 16th century the practice reached its peak with Du Bellay’s Les Antiquités de Rome of 1558, translated by Edmund Spenser as Ruines of Rome: by Bellay in 1591. The same volume of Spenser’s Complaints also contained his The Ruines of Time.

The structure of Sonnet 64 is marked by the triple, “When I haue seene,” which introduces each quatrain. The sonnet comprises a meditation of three puncta or points on the power of time. The first object on which the poet focusses is “times fell hand,” where “fell” means firstly ‘cruel’ or ‘indiscriminately ruthless’ and secondly ‘hairy’ or ‘rough’ (fell = hair). As in Sonnet 6.1, “Then let not winters wragged hand deface,” so here time’s hand is one that has “defaced,” either ‘disfigured’ or ‘rendered anonymous by eroding any distinguishing features.’ The object of its action has been “The rich proud cost of outworne buried age,” the buildings of former times that were ‘costly’ or ‘splendid” (“rich”) and full of ‘glory’ and ‘vaingloriousness’ (“proud”). The edifices are of an age now “buried,” literally in the earth, figuratively in the past. They are of an age “outworne:” ‘worn down,’ ‘worn away,’ even ‘worn out.’ The lines imitate the motto to Whitney’s Scripta manent (‘Writings remain’), which are relevant also to Sonnet 65:

If mightie Troie, with gates of steele, and brasse,
Bee worne awaie, with tracte of stealinge time:
If Carthage, raste: if Thebes be growne with grasse . .
If Athens, and Numantia suffered spoile:
If Aegypt spires, be euened with soile. 2

Whitney’s sidenotes cite as precedents Propertius, ‘Thebes has stood and lofty (“alta”) Troy once was,’ and Demosthenes, ‘Cities, once most famous, are now nothing; those now lofty will sometime experience the same fortune.’ 3 The poet muses on these “sometime loftie towers,” for which Troy was famous; “loftie” intends ‘high’ as well as ‘proud,’ intended to defy time. He contemplates them as “down rased,” similar to Whitney’s Carthage which is “raste;” where in Whitney, “brasse, / Bee worne awaie,” in Shakespeare “brasse” is pictured as an “eternall slaue” to a destructive force (“rage”) that brings only death (“mortall”). In Sonnet 65 the “rage” of “sad mortallity” is featured.

The meditation’s third punctum treats of the never-ending struggle and constant “interchange” between the land and sea. A parallel image is found in Whitney’s adjacent emblem, Constanter:

The raging Sea, that roares, with fearefull sounde,
And threatneth all the worlde to ouerflowe:
The shore sometimes, his billowes doth rebounde,
Though ofte it winnes, and giues the earthe a blowe
Sometimes, where shippes did saile: it makes a lande.
Sometimes againe they saile: where townes did stande. 4

The image’s classical source is Ovid’s explanation of the “enterchaunging course” of things in the Pythagorean section of Metamorphoses, ‘Often the state of places is interchanged: I have seen what was once the most firm soil (“solidissima tellus”) become the hungry ocean (“fretum”); I have seen lands made from the watery main (“aequor”).’ 6 (Whitney’s “raging Sea” and Shakespeare’s “rage” and “hungry Ocean” have picked up the pun in Ovid’s “fretum,” which can mean both the ocean and “raging” or “hungry.”)

For Shakespeare the “hungry Ocean” may “gaine Aduantage” on the land, but only for the “firme soile” to win itself back from the “watry maine.” The interchange is encapsulated in an equivalent adage, “Increasing store with losse, and losse with store.” The poet ponders “such interchange of state,” or more fundamentally the very state of things being  ‘undermined’ or ‘brought to nought’ (“confounded, to decay”). (Both “confounded” (from cum + fundere = to pour together) and “Ruine” (from ruere = to flow down) continue the water image.) The downfall of all things (“Ruine”) teaches him to “ruminate” on a dreadful thought: “That Time will come and take my loue away.” The thought comes “as a death” might come and is a thought over which the poet can only grieve (“which cannot choose / But weepe”). The poet’s deep fear is that the beloved might one day be lost to him.


64.1. Nonius Marcellus, De Compendiosa Doctrina, 480.24. Nonius Marcellus, a late Latin Latin antiquarian and lexicographer, was considered the convention’s founder.

64.2. Whitney 131.

64.3. Whitney 131, “Propertius. [Elegies 2.8.10] “Et Thebae steterant, altaque Troia fuit.” “Demosthenes, In Arg. Liber 1. “Clarissimae olim vrbes, nunc nihil sunt, Quae maxime nunc superbiunt, eandem aliquando fortunam experientur.”

64.5. Whitney 129.1-6.

64.6. Ovid, Met. 15.261-3:

sic totiens versa est fortuna locorum.
vidi ego, quod fuerat quondam solidissima tellus,
esse fretum, vidi factas ex aequore terras.

Compare Golding 15. 287-9:

Even so have places oftentymes exchaunged theyr estate.
For I have seene it sea which was substanciall ground alate,
Ageine where sea was, I have seene the same become dry lond.

Comments are closed.