“Sonnet 12: When I do count the clock that tells the time” by William Shakespeare – Reference to the John Barleycorn Myth

Barleycorn

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

This sonnet is another one of the “fair youth” poems where Shakespeare entreats an unnamed young man to fulfill his duty by procreating and becoming a father and husband. Most of the metaphors in this poem employ images of nature to contrast youth and old age, such as “brave day” and “hideous night,” or the barren trees as opposed to the leafy, shade-giving ones. But there is one symbol that Shakespeare uses this poem that I found particularly interesting: barley.

Barley is not overtly mentioned in this sonnet, but it is implied in the following two lines.

And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,

Barley was an important crop in the British Isles. So much so that it became associated with the resurrection myth of John Barleycorn. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this myth, here is a short summary.

John Barleycorn is a British folksong. The character of John Barleycorn in the song is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky. In the song, John Barleycorn is represented as suffering attacks, death and indignities that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation, such as reaping and malting.

Kathleen Herbert draws a link between the mythical figure Beowa (a figure stemming from Anglo-Saxon paganism that appears in early Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies whose name means “barley”) and the figure of John Barleycorn. Herbert says that Beowa and Barleycorn are one and the same, noting that the folksong details the suffering, death, and resurrection of Barleycorn, yet also celebrates the “reviving effects of drinking his blood.”

The idea of a grain god who dies, is buried, and is reborn as the current year’s crop dates back at least to dynastic Egyptian myths of the god Osiris. In the Coffin Texts, the deceased person states: “I am Osiris. I have come forth and entered into thee, I have flourished in thee, I have grown in thee, I have fallen into thee, I have fallen on my side. The gods live by me. I live and grow as Neper [Corn], whom the august gods bring forth that I may cover Geb [the earth], whether I be alive or dead. I am barley, I am not destroyed…” Elsewhere in the Coffin Texts, the formula of Becoming Barley of Lower Egypt states that the deceased “is this bush of life [barley] which went forth from Osiris to grow on the ribs of Osiris and to nourish the common people, which makes the gods divine and spiritualizes the spirits…”

(Source: Wikipedia)

So essentially, Shakespeare is using the resurrection myth popular in England to encourage the young man to have children. Just as the grain god is reborn through the burial (planting) of the seed, so must humans sow the seeds of rebirth to continue the cycle of life, both physically and spiritually.

I have to say that I really like this sonnet, much more so than the previous eleven, mainly because of Shakespeare’s use of folklore and mythology. To conclude, I will add a musical interpretation of the John Barleycorn myth that is one of my all-time favorites. Enjoy, and thanks for stopping by.

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