Analysis of Sonnet 15 by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 15 is full of rich pickings for the reader and is one of Shakespeare’s most popular mainly due to the opening pair of lines in which the exquisite phrase holds in perfection but a little moment sets the scene up nicely for the theme of time versus decay.

This theme runs throughout the sonnet, which has horticultural and astrological side shoots, as well as metaphor and personification, more of which a little later.

  • And please note that not every line of this sonnet is iambic pentameter, as some authorities would tell you. There are several lines containing spondees and trochees, where the stresses differ from the steady and reliable da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. All will be explained.
  • There are also different published versions of this sonnet, where the punctuation and spelling can change in certain lines. The version shown here is taken from the original 1609 Quarto.

William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in total, an unprecedented body of work inspired by love, friendship and affection for a fair youth and dark lady, who remain unknown to this day.

Sonnet 15 is an English (or Shakespearean) sonnet with three quatrains leading up to the turn, then comes the concluding couplet. Some scholars think it should be read together as a pair with sonnet 16, which starts with the word But.…an obvious follow on from line 14 of the fifteenth sonnet.

Like all of Shakespeare’s sonnets though, it is strong enough to stand alone as a great love poem, giving back to the reader a timeless quality.

Sonnet 15 has as its main theme the growth and decay evident in the battle against time, specifically with reference to the fair youth, who is being encouraged to procreate and so sustain his beauty before it’s too late.

The speaker is insistent, initially proposing with a universal statement in those well known opening two lines, enjambment encouraging the reader to continue on from first to second.

From the classic pure iambic pentameter opening line to the trochaic first foot of the second line, with the stress on Holds.…and the fading unstressed extra beat of moment….there is something profoundly moving about the idea of perfection lasting only a little moment.

  • This is one of the great introductions to the concept of time and its withering effects on all things.

In lines three and four the speaker adds a dramatic element, a metaphor, of the stage, surely a favourite of Shakespeare’s. Here the stage is the world, all of life, the universe, and on it there are fake performances, sham and illusory scenes that are mere surface material. Life is a series of appearances, revealed fleetingly.

And these life performances are somehow influenced by stars. In Shakespeare’s time it was generally believed that an invisible fluid came down from the heavens to effect life on earth, including human decisions and actions. Astrologers would interpret these movements of the stars and predict outcomes and best practice.

Progressing, the next sub-clause in line 5 turns to the observation of the plant world, comparing humans to plants – both grow in similar ways – cheerèd and checked (encouraged and stopped) by the weather.

Both vaunt (exult) as the fresh sap rises, displaying all they’ve got to full effect until having reached their maximum, their brave state which they wear – like clothing -they then start to fade.

Note the rhymes of increase/decrease (antonyms) and sky/memory (lives were said to be written in the sky or in the stars). They will eventually be forgotten.

  • Because of this notion of the little moment, this transient existence – inconstant stay – this unpredictable life, the fair youth’s beauty comes through even stronger in the eyes of the speaker.

Time is a waster, fighting with decay, changing the fair youth’s young looks (day) to that of night (soiled/darkened).

The language here reflects the feeling of the speaker – wasteful/decay/sullied/war – who is adamant that, despite this battle and time’s undermining effects, the poetry will renew his beauty.

Sonnet 15 has the usual rhyme scheme of an English (Shakespearean) sonnet:

abab cdcd efef gg

all the end rhymes being full, for example grows/shows and you/new. The only exception is found with sky/memory, which a near rhyme.The full rhyme tightens up the poem and brings a familiar sense of wholeness and is also traditionally memorable.

Internal Rhyme

Words found inside the lines sometimes rhyme or relate to others, producing echoes and associative sounds. Note the following:

When/every/perfection/presenteth/comment

When/men/Cheerèd/checked/self/memory/Sets/debateth/engraft

Alliteration

That this/stars in secret/perceive that men as plants/Cheered and checked/Then the/debateth with decay/your day of youth/war with

Assonance

grows/Holds/moment/shows

Lines 10 – 14

Some analysts focus on these lines and the repeated use of:

you/youth/your/youth/you/you/you.

This almost obsessive use reflects the poet’s focus on his subject

Metre (meter in American English)

It is true that iambic pentameter dominates the sonnet but please note that several lines vary a great deal metrically, altering stress patterns and emphasis, producing a varied experience for the reader.

1. When I / consid / er eve / ry thing / that grows

2. Holds in / perfect / ion but / a litt / le mo / ment.

3. That this / huge stage / presen / teth nought / but shows

4. Whereon / the stars / in se / cret in / fluence com / ment.

5. When I / perceive / that men / as plants / increase,

6. Cheerèd / and checked / ev’n by / the self- / same sky:

7. Vaunt in / their youth / ful sap, / at height / decrease,

8. And wear / their brave / state out / of mem / ory.

9. Then the / conceit / of this / incon / stant stay,

10.Sets you / most rich / in youth / before / my sight,

11.Where waste / ful time / deba / teth with / decay

12.To change / your day / of youth / to sul / lied night,

13. And all / in war / with Time / for love / of you,

14. As he / takes from / you, I / engraft / you new.

  • Lines 1,5,8,10-13 are iambic pentameter.
  • Line 2: trochee + 4 iambs + extra unstressed beat.
  • Line 3: iamb + spondee + 3 iambs.
  • Line 4: 5 iambs + extra unstressed beat. (influence as 2 syllables)
  • Line 6: trochee + iamb + trochee + iamb + spondee.
  • Line 7: trochee + 4 iambs.
  • Line 9: trochee + 4 iambs.
  • Line 14: iamb + 2 trochees + 2 iambs.

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

www.bl.uk

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005