“Sonnet 16: But wherefore do not you a mightier way” by William Shakespeare

Astronomical clock at Hampton Court Palace (tudorhistory.org).

Astronomical clock at Hampton Court Palace (tudorhistory.org).

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

This is yet another one of Shakespeare’s fair youth/procreation sonnets. What I like about this one, though, is the incorporation of the idea of art as a way of achieving immortality and essentially Shakespeare’s rejection of that idea.

Since the Epic of Gilgamesh, we have seen heroes striving to attain immortality through deeds which are kept alive through stories and poetry. Obviously, this was still something that was sought after in Shakespeare’s day.

In the opening two lines, we see that the youth is seeking to ensure he is remembered by making war on Time. The two means that he uses are paintings, symbolized by the “painted counterfeit,” and poetry, symbolized by “my barren rhyme.” By claiming that the poem is barren, Shakespeare is implying that a poem does not ensure continuity of being as well as procreation.

My favorite section of this sonnet is the following:

So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,

What I find so brilliant about this is that “lines” is actually a triple entendre. Lines refer to the lines of poetry written in the sonnet. The word also refers to the lines being drawn for a portrait. And finally, “lines” also refers to lineage kept alive through childbirth.

4 Comments

Filed under Literature

4 responses to ““Sonnet 16: But wherefore do not you a mightier way” by William Shakespeare

  1. That is a great section. When we’re all caught up in the present world, isn’t it wild to think about how great poets/writers/thinkers were pondering the exact same things?

    • You’re so right. It’s like at the core of humanity, we have not really changed all that much. We are still driven by the same things.

      I hope you are enjoying the long weekend and getting in a lot of reading 🙂 As always, it is great to hear from you.

      Jeff

  2. A wonderfu openig to this sonnet – it revererates and sends me spinning back thirty years to my younger self, when I discovered how much I loved the sound of words in a masters tongue.

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