“Sonnet 19: Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws” by William Shakespeare

Portrait of a Young Man: Piero di Cosimo

Portrait of a Young Man: Piero di Cosimo

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

This is another romantic fair youth sonnet in which Shakespeare expresses his longing to immortalize the young man’s beauty through poetry. But I noticed something interesting about this sonnet which I feel gives some insight into the fair youth and why Shakespeare found him so attractive. The key is in the first four lines:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;

Here we have four metaphors, two symbolizing masculine strength and beauty, and two representing feminine. In lines 1 and 3, the lion and the tiger symbolize the masculine, images of strength, manly grace, and power. In lines 2 and 4, we have the earth and the phoenix, feminine symbols of beauty associated with creation and rebirth. The fact that Shakespeare vacillates between the masculine and feminine implies that the young man to whom the sonnet is composed possesses a balance of masculine and feminine qualities, allowing him to transcend the concept of gender-based beauty. And because the youth’s physical traits encompass both masculine and feminine beauty, he becomes, in Shakespeare’s eyes, the paragon of what human beauty should be.

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