Analysis of Sonnet 64
Of Shakespeare’s sonnet-sequence, the group of sonnets dealing with the theme of time and love deserves a special attention. Such sonnets are concerned primarily with the effects of time, and delicate the conflict between time and love. The sonnet 64, When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d is a notable specimen of this group, although its difference from most sonnets on time is noteworthy.
The theme of the sonnet is the poet’s painful admission of the destructive effects of time. It presents how different elements are subjected to mortality and mutability under the severe impact of time. The costly, pompous human creations of art and architecture are swept away in course of time. Neither the lofty tower nor the brass wall can withstand the inevitable decay that time causes. The sonnet also traces the mutability which is caused by time. The mighty ocean and the solid land are equally affected and subjected to physical changes. Whereas ‘the hungry ocean’ devours the solid land, the ‘firm soil’ wins of ‘the watery main’, and thus the interchange of gain and loss continues. The poet is also painfully conscious of the effect of time on love and apprehends sadly that ‘Time will come and take my love away.’
The theme of sonnet 64 bears out distinctly a highly reflective mood of the poet, in which his personal agony and profoundly plaintive realization of universal transience are finely intermingled. The quick decay of mighty material elements and the sweeping changes in the physical world are the matters of deep concern for the poet and lead him to grasp, of course sadly, the inevitable tragedy of human life and of his own love. The universal ruin has taught him to ruminate
“That Time will come and take my love away.”
The poet’s tone here is deeply sincere. A good sonnet, as subjective poem, is intensely intimate to the poet’s heart. The present sonnet echoes the poet’s intimately personal feelings-his profound love and plaintive anticipation. The concluding couplet is a deep pronouncement of the poet’s genuine grievance at the sad anticipation of the end of his friend at the bidding of time
“This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have, that which it fears to lose.”
What, however, marks indelibly the poet’s tone is a sense of deep despondency. The poet is pensive because of his thorough consciousness of the transience of all things, including his own love. His personal despondency goes with his awareness of universal transitoriness. This fills his mind with an overwhelming mood of melancholy, and he is haunted with that tragic thought of life which is too deep for tears. The sonnet is certainly more pessimistic than the other sonnets of this group.
In fact, the tragic thought of the sonnet is unrelieved by any consolatory feeling. The triumph of love over time, through the magic of the poet’s art, is not heard here. The sonnet 64 ends, as seen, with the poet’s helpless surrender to the power of time and mourning for that which he is to lose in no time. Here, again, the sonnet stands differently from most sonnets on the time-love theme.
The sonnet 64 is also a fine exhibition of Shakespeare’s craftsmanship as a sonneteer. The excellence of Shakespearean imagery, precise and graphic, and of his appropriate diction is undeniable here. The decay of the costly, glorious elements of the remote past, ‘lofty towers’, or brass made materials has a very brief yet suggestive representation Shakespeare’s imagery of nature is aptly conceived in the second quatrain of the sonnet-
“When I have seen the hungry ocean gain,
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store.”
Time is well personified in the expression ‘fell hand’, while natural elements ‘hungry ocean’ and ‘firm soil’ have suggestive personifications in the quatrain, quoted above. There are several pregnant and meaningful terms, such as, ‘rich proud cost,’ ‘eternal slave to mortal rage,’ ‘ruminate’, and so on. The antithetical expression ‘increasing store with loss and loss with store’ is quite felicitous, too.
From the structural standpoint, the sonnet exhibits Shakespeare’s high artistry. The first two quatrains state the destructive effects of time. The first quatrain draws the decay that time effects on mighty and costly edifices, built by men. The second quatrain shows the changes that different natural elements undergo. The third quatrain follows from the thoughts of the first two quatrains. The poet learns here from the ruin, caused by time, that time will come and take, too, his love away. A sense of gloom prevails here, which is quite unlike what is perceived in the Sonnet 116.
The concluding couplet sums up the poet’s pensive and helpless realization that he cannot choose but weep because of his fear to lose that which he values most. The rhyme-scheme– ab ab, cd cd, ef ef, gg– of the sonnet is typically Shakespearean, written in Iambic pentameter, as illustrated below:
When ī | have séen | by Time’s | fell hánd | de-fáced.
The rích | proud cóst | of, oút | worn bú | ried áge.
When sóme | time lóft | ty tów(e)r | I sée | down rázed
And bráss,| e-tér |nal sláve |to mór | tal ráge.