THus is his cheeke the map of daies out-worne,
When beauty liu’d and dy’ed as flowers do now,
Before these baſtard ſignes of faire were borne,
Or durſt inhabit on a liuing brow:
Before the goulden treſſes of the dead,
The right of ſepulchers, were ſhorne away,
To liue a ſcond life on ſecond head, second
Ere beauties dead fleece made another gay:
In him thoſe holy antique howers are ſeene,
Without all ornament, it ſelfe and true,
Making no ſummer of an others greene,
Robbing no ould to dreſſe his beauty new,
And him as for a map doth Nature ſtore,
To ſhew faulſe Art what beauty was of yore.
Sonnet 68 is closely tied to Sonnet 67 and develops its couplet, where nature preserves the unfallen beauty of the friend only to show “what welth she had, / In daies long since.” The sonnets are linked by the initial, “Thus.” The youth’s cheek, untainted by “infection,” is “the map of daies out-worne.” A first reading of “map” suggests a face with lines traced on it (Mercator’s map was of very recent origin), a metaphor Shakespeare uses, for example, of Malvolio, “He does smile his face into more lynes, then is in the new Mappe” (TN 3.2.76). But since the youth is unlined, “map” here intends, figuratively, the embodiment or epitome of “daies out-worne,” those days, with Sonnet 67’s argument in mind, that are well past, even those before the fall. In the garden beauty was naturally cyclic, just as flowers now are. The youth’s cheek incarnates the golden age before “these bastard signes of faire were borne,” where “borne” can be read either as ‘born,’ and thus associated with “bastard,” or as ‘borne,’ carried on “a liuing brow.” The “bastard signes” are unnatural and shadows of the true (“faire”), just as Perdita’s “streak’d Gilly-vors” are “Natures bastards” (WT 4.4.82-3). In paradise spurious beauty did not dare (“durst”) dwell on a “liuing brow” or face.
The friend’s cheek is of a time, “Before the goulden tresses of the dead, / The right of sepulchers, were shorne away, / To liue a s[e]cond life on second head.” The practice of shaving the head and covering it with a gregorian or periwig of golden hair – the most fashionable colour in imitation of Elizabeth I’s own colouring – was frequent at court. The friend personifies a time before the hair of the dead, to which the tomb is the rightful claimant, was “shorne away” by dressers and trimmers to be used again, not as living hair, but as a “dead fleece” making the courtier, either male or female, “gay.” Shakespeare uses “gay” to mean both ‘resplendent’ and, of a common stale, ‘alluring’ or ‘false’ (compare Err. 2.1.94.)
In the youth are seen “those holy antique howers,” those earlier, untainted prelapsarian times, which existed, “Without all ornament,” because decoration is the product of a later, degenerate age. The “it selfe and true” refers to “howers” (plural nouns presented as singular were not uncommon), a paradisial age when simplicity and truth prevailed. At that time nothing took the “greene,” the colour of spring’s freshness and innocence, and used it as gloss or finery (“summer”) for something else; nothing stole from ancient perfection to adorn with newness (“Robbing no ould to dresse his beauty new”). The action of ‘dressing’ looks back to the dressers who robbed corpses of their hair. The couplet reiterates that of Sonnet 67: nature preserves the youth (“store”), so that he might be an epitome (“as for a map”) that makes manifest to “faulse Art” what pristine beauty once was (“what beauty was of yore”).