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Shakespeare's Sonnets
With Summaries and Annotations
Compiled by Michael J. Cummings... 2003, 2008, 2013
1-25     26-50     51-75     76-101     102-127     128-154
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. Sonnet 1 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man) 

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding:
   Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
   To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

Notes

increase: Reproduction, offspring, children.


beauty's rose: Your beauty.
riper: Riper personthat is, older person or aging person.
tender: Young.
contracted . . . eyes: Married to yourself, in love with yourself.
thy light's flame: Love for yourself.
famine . . . lies: Depleting your own abundant beauty.
ornament: Young person.
bud . . . content: bury your attention inside your own seed, or source of new life, instead of fathering a child.
tender churl: Young miser.
niggarding: Being stingy.


Meaning

We want beautiful people and things to reproduce themselves so that their good qualities will be passed on to their offspring (children, plants, etc.) It's true that an aging person or thing will eventually die, but the memory of that person or thing will continue to live if offspring are produced. But you, who are in love with yourself, seem to devote all of your attention to yourself. You're like the flame of a candle that burns only for itself instead of providing light for others.You are your own enemy. Right now, you are young and new to the world. But instead of procreating and sharing yourself by marrying, you keep your procreative seed inside yourself, unused (thine own bud buriest thy content). Thus, young miser, you waste your good qualities by refusing to spend them on others In the end, by thinking only of yourself and not mingling with others, you will consume your ability to procreate and go to your grave without any children or memories to immortalize you.

Sonnet 2 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter'd weed of small worth held: 
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days; 
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv'd thy beauty's use,
If thou couldst answer "This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,"
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
  This were to be new made when thou art old,
   And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.

Notes

forty winters: Forty years; 
besiege: see Comment.
deep trenches: Wrinkles.
beauty's field: Complexion.
livery: Literally, attire or uniform; figuratively, appearance, good looks
tatter'd: Withered (aging, old); some editions of the poem use totter'd
To say: To admit the truth
Were . . . shame: Would be an all-consuming shame.
thriftless: Without profit.
sum . . . excuse: Stand as proof of a well-spent youth and sustain me in old age
his . . . thine: The child's beauty came from you.
This . . . . old: Thus your beauty will live anew in him.

Meaning.

When you reach forty and develop wrinkles, your present good looks will wither like an autumn weed. People will ask what happened to all your beauty and all the treasure of your youth. As you gaze out through your sunken eyes, you will have to admit that you squandered your youth and all its treasure—including your looks, your talents, and money—on selfish pursuits. And you will have to acknowledge that any praise you received for your charm and physical appeal is now worthless, a complete waste. How much better it would be if you could answer that your youth produced a beautiful child. Your image and wise use of your good qualities would live on in him and, in your old age, warm your blood when you feel cold. 

Comment

In the first two lines, Shakespeare compares aging to an army that lays siege to a fortress (the young man). The army digs trenches in the field around the castle. The trenches are the lines in the youth's once-flawless face. 

Sonnet 3 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity
Thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
   But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
   Die single and thine image dies with thee.

Notes

glass: Mirror.
form another: Beget a child.
unear’d: Not tilled, unplowed.
tillage: Fertilization; cultivation; reception of the male seed.
who . . . posterity: Your fondness for yourself will entomb the memory of you; for, failing to marry, you will not have a child who would preserve your image in him.
glass: Image. Glass is a metaphor for mirror. In other words, the young man is the mirror image of his mother.
she . . . prime: The image of her that I see in you reminds me of her loveliness in her prime

Meaning

Look in a mirror and tell yourself that now is the time to beget a child (“form another”). There is no woman, after all, who is so outstanding that she will refuse to marry you and engage in intimate relations. It is not right that a man should love only himself, refusing to take a wife and pass on his good qualities to a child. Your mother bequeathed to you your excellent attributes, and you in turn should bestow them on your own child, who will reflect your youth when you are old. If you choose not to marry and have a family, no one will remember you. 

Comment

Sonnet 3 focuses on appearances: the image the young man sees when he looks into a mirror, his likeness to his mother when she was young, and the likelihood that a child of his would reflect his image. Glass in the first line refers literally to a mirror; in line 9, it refers figuratively to the young man's resemblance to his mother. 

Sonnet 4 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty's legacy?
Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
   Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
   Which, used, lives th' executor to be.

Notes

Unthrifty: Unproductive.
legacy: The beauty that your parents passed on to you.
frank: Generous.
those are free: Those free to be generous.
niggard: Stingy person.
bounteous largess: Plentiful good qualities.
Profitless userer: A userer lends to make a profit. (See Comment.)
So . . . alone: You have so much. However, you will have little to make your memory live on, for you are devoted only to yourself.
when . . . gone: When you die.
What . . . leave: What will you leave behind?
Which . . . be: But if you father a child, your qualities will survive in him.

Meaning

Why are you spending all your vigor and appeal on yourself (instead of sharing it by siring a child)? You ought to keep in mind that nature will eventually take away the youth that she lent to you. You have it for only a short time.Your good qualities are bountifulyou have more than you need .Yet you use all of them on yourself and still are not satisfied. In devoting all of your attention to satisfying your desires, you will end up going to your grave without a child that could inherit part of you and keep you alive in him.

Comment

As a profitless userer, the young man gets no return for the investment of his time, energy, and good qualities; he invests everything in activities that satisfy only himself. If he instead invested in love and marriage, he would realize a return: a child.

Sonnet 5 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check'd with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o'ersnow'd and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer's distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty's effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:
    But flowers distill'd though they with winter meet,
    Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.


Notes

gaze: The young man's face.
Will play . . . doth excel: Time will become a tyrant to you and undo your good looks.
check'd: Frozen.
summer's distillation: Perfume from flowers.
A liquid . . . glass: Perfume in a bottle

Meaning

Time shaped you into a handsome young man upon whom everyone gazes. But time will eventually become a tyrant that will undo all of his good looks. For time does not rest; it moves from one season to the next, turning summer into hideous winter, stopping up the sap from trees with frost and killing the leaves on the trees. All is bare; snow covers whatever beauty there is. If people did not extract perfume from summer flowers and put it in a bottle, there would be nothing left from the summer. But flowers that leave part of themselves behind live on through winter. In other words, the young man should take the time to marry and leave behind part of himself, a child.

Sonnet 6 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Then let not winter's ragged hand deface,
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty's treasure ere it be self-killed.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That's for thy self to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thy self were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
   Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
   To be death's conquest and make worms thine heir.

Notes

winter's . . . hand: Old age.
summer: Youth.
ere: Before.
be distilled: Have a child who is the essence of you.
vial: Woman who will receive his seed.
beauty's treasure: The young man's seed.
forbidden usury . . .  one: Usury is the practice of lending money at interest. In earlier times, usury was considered a sin. Here, Shakespeare compares fathering offspring to lending money. The children the mother bears would be the "interest" she pays the father. But this type of "usury," the speaker says, would not be sinful.
Leaving . . . posterity: Leaving you to live on in your children after you die.

Meaning

Don't let old age deface you before you have a child. Take a wife and sweeten her womb with your offspring before you die. To use your creative power in such a way
to create another youwould make others happy. And if you fathered more than one child the happiness would multiply. Ten children would bring tenfold happiness. After your death, you would live on through your children. Let children be your heirs, not the worms that will consume you in your grave.

Sonnet 7 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage:
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, 'fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract, and look another way:
   So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon
   Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.

Notes

orient: East.
gracious light: Sun.
each . . . eye: Each person.
heavenly hill: Sky.
golden pilgrimage: Journey of the sun across the sky.
highmost pitch: Highest point; zenith.
The eyes . . .duteous: The people, previously attentive to the sun. Here, 'fore means before or previously.

Meaning

When the sun rises, people are thankful for the light that renews
their ability to see. They pay it homage as a king of the day. When the sun climbs toward its zenith, people continue to glory in the light that it provides. But when the sun reaches its highest point and wearies from its journey, like an old man, the eyes of the people below turn their attention away from it. So it will be with you after you reach middle age and people no longer admire you as they did in your glorious youth. But if you father a son, people will continue to admire youin the likeness of your child.

Sonnet 8 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:
Why lov'st thou that which thou receiv'st not gladly,
Or else receiv'st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
   Whose speechless song being many, seeming one,
   Sings this to thee: 'Thou single wilt prove none.'

Notes

receiv'st . . . annoy?: Why do your receive with pleasure that which annoys you?
concord: Harmony.
Resembling . . . mother: The notes harmonize the way a husband, wife, and their child do.
speechless song: Song for instruments, not voices.

Meaning

When you listen to music, why does it make you unhappy? I think I know why. It makes you unhappy because it reminds you that music is like marriage. Consider that music is a combination of separate notes played in harmony. In like manner, marriage is a combination of separate people—a man, a woman, and eventually their offspring—who live together in harmony. You, however, are living alone, like a single note played again and again. There is no harmony. Consequently, when you hear a song, its notes “chide thee” (line 7)—that is, they scold you for refusing to marry and take part in the harmony of married life. In marriage, one note becomes “sweet husband to another” (line 9). After a child arrives, the husband, wife, and son or daughter all make harmony together. Though they are separate “notes,” they harmonize to make one pleasing song. That song tells you that you will never achieve harmony in life unless you marry.

Sonnet 9 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye,
That thou consum'st thy self in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children's eyes, her husband's shape in mind:
Look what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty's waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused the user so destroys it.
   No love toward others in that bosom sits
   That on himself such murderous shame commits.

Notes

issueless: Without children.
makeless: Childless.
no form of thee: No child .
may keep . . . mind: May be reminded of her late husband by her children's resemblance to him.
unthrift: Spendthrift.
Shifts . . . place: Continues to circulate in the hands of the public.
But beauty's . . . destroys it: When an unmarried man dies, he leaves nothing behind and thus destroys his image.
Murderous shame: Failure to father a child

Meaning

The first two lines ask whether the young man refuses to marry for fear that he will leave behind a saddened widow when he dies. If he remains single because of that fear, the sonnet says, he should keep in mind that the world itself will weep for him because he died without children to preserve his image in them. He will become less than a wastrel, who lives on after his death in the still-circulating money that he spent. Shakespeare ends the sonnet by saying that the young man’s avoidance of marriage is shameful.


Sonnet 10 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

For shame deny that thou bear'st love to any,
Who for thy self art so unprovident.
Grant, if thou wilt, thou art beloved of many,
But that thou none lov'st is most evident:
For thou art so possessed with murderous hate,
That 'gainst thy self thou stick'st not to conspire,
Seeking that beauteous roof to ruinate
Which to repair should be thy chief desire.
O! change thy thought, that I may change my mind:
Shall hate be fairer lodged than gentle love?
Be, as thy presence is, gracious and kind,
Or to thyself at least kind-hearted prove:
   Make thee another self for love of me,
   That beauty still may live in thine or thee.

Notes

unprovident: Not providing for the future; rash; incautious; improvident
so . . . hate: So determined not to marry and have children—that is, determined to “murder” future generations.
beauteous roof: The noble house from which you descended. Not marrying and having children would mean the end of this house. The roof would collapse, so to speak.
repair: You should maintain the house to assure that noble blood still runs in the veins of those who live in it. In other words, you should have children.

Meaning

You should be ashamed that you do not love anyone else. Obviously, you don't care about providing ("thy self art so unprovident," line 2) a future life for yourself that includes a wife and children. I grant you, though, that many love you even though you don't love any of them. You are so possessed with the idea of remaining single that you, in effect, are "murdering" the possibility of having children. You apparently seek to be the last of the line from which you are descended. You are inclined not to pass on to others the blood that you inherited from your forebears. If this truly is your attitude, your noble house will be ruined (line 7); it will end with you. But your chief desire should be to perpetuate your blood line. Therefore, I ask you to change your thinking so that I may change my present negative opinion of you. Don't let hatred of marriage lodge in your heart. Instead, let love live there. Be as gracious and kind as your physical image—with all of its superior qualities—suggests that you are. Do it for your own sake. I ask you again: father a child. Do this one favor for me. I want your beauty to live on in others. Deciding to father a child will make beauty glow in you.

Sonnet 11 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow'st,
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this folly, age, and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish:
Look whom she best endowed, she gave the more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
   She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby,
   Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

Notes

wane: Weaken; decline.
that fresh blood: A child.
When thou . . . convertest: When you grow old.
Herein: In this way of life—that is, in marrying and fathering children.
Increase: Offspring.
Without . . . decay: Without the folly of growing old alone.
If all . . . so: If every man decided not to marry.
threescore year: Sixty years.
barrenly perish: Die without children.
she . . . endowed: Nature endowed you with superior qualities.
print more: Print more copies of yourself—that is, father children.

Meaning

As fast as you age and weaken, a child of yours would grow. His “fresh blood” (line 3) would comfort you as the years pass. Choosing to father a child in marriage would be a wise and beautiful course of action and assure that your good qualities would live on in the child. Choosing to remain single, however, would be folly and would leave you cold, decrepit, and alone in your old age. If everyone decided to remain single, the world would soon end. Let those whom nature has not marked to sire children—those who are crude and ugly—die without children. Those whom nature endowed with superior gifts should cherish them and pass them on in marriage.

Sonnet 12 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

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 silvered 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 defence
   Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence. 

Notes

brave: Splendid; shining.
sable: Black.
erst: Formerly; at one time.
canopy: Cover, like an umbrella. 
green . . . sheaves: harvested grain stalks tied in bundles.
bier: Cart, wagon.
beard: tufted growth on the head of a cereal grain.
question make: Think about.
among . . . go: Must die, just as the violets, leaves, crops, etc.
scythe: sickle, symbol of death; grim reaper
breed: Offspring, children.
brave him: Mock death, taunt death.

Meaning

The toll or tick of a clock, the setting sun, withering flowers, falling leaves, the autumn harvest all make me aware of the passing of time, reminding me that you (the young man) too will grow old and die. Therefore, now, while you are still young, you should marry and breed (have children) who will live on after you. Only in this way can you defeat death.

Comment

Sonnet 12 centers on symbols of impending death: hideous night, the violet past prime, once-black hair now silvered, barren trees, and the season's harvest carried on a bier. These images prompt the speaker of the poem to remind the young man that time is passing swiftly. His only defense against time and death is to father a child that keeps his name and image alive.

Sonnet 13 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

O! that you were your self; but, love, you are
No longer yours, than you your self here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give:
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
Yourself again, after yourself's decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold,
Against the stormy gusts of winter's day
And barren rage of death's eternal cold?
   O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know,
   You had a father: let your son say so.

Notes

were: Owned.
semblance: Appearance; likeness; face.
in lease: Temporarily.
no determination: No end.
then . . . decease: Through a child that you father, you would be yourself again after you die. In other words, you would live on in your child.
issue: Child.
husbandry: Careful management.
unthrifts: Careless people who cannot manage property or money.

Meaning

Oh, I wish that you belonged to yourself. But you do not. Instead, you belong to death, which one day will come to claim you. However, it is possible to pass the image of yourself on to another person—a child that you father. This child would bear your form; he would be another you. It is foolhardy to allow a beautiful house to fall to ruin; such a house should stand for generations. Likewise, it is foolhardy for you to neglect your duty to keep your house standing. Therefore, seek to perpetuate your house through a child you beget, passing on your beauty to him. You had a father. Let your son say he also had one.

Sonnet 14 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck;
And yet methinks I have Astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself, to store thou wouldst convert;
   Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
   Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.

Notes

Astronomy: Ability to use the stars to predict the future; astrology.
dearths: Famines.
constant: Faithful; reliable in the ability to reveal the future.
If . . . convert: If you decide to store yourself in another person—that is, if you father a child.
prognosticate: Predict.

Meaning

I do not read the stars to make a judgment. Nevertheless, I think am an astrologer—in a manner of speaking. True, I cannot foresee good luck or bad luck, plagues, famines, or the kind of weather we will have for a season of the year. Moreover, I cannot tell a person's fortune—whether his life will be stormy or calm. Nor can I predict what is in store for a country's ruler when he ascends his throne. However, I can derive knowledge from your eyes, which are constant stars. They tell me that truth and beauty will thrive in a child that you father. But if you fail to sire a child, your death will mark the end of truth and beauty.

Sonnet 15 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and checked even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night,
   And all in war with Time for love of you,
   As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

Notes

huge stage: Earth.
plants: Living beings.
Vaunt: Boastful; proud.
at . . . decrease: Youthful vigor begins to decline when it reaches its height.
conceit: Thought; idea.
And all . . . new: As time robs you of your youth, I create you anew in my sonnets.

Meaning

Everything on earth that passes through stages of growth is at its peak of perfection only for a short time. Moreover, everything is under the influence of the stars. When men progress through their stages of growth, the stars help or hinder them. In their youth, men boast about their powers. But after reaching an advanced age, they can no longer muster the vigor that carried them through youth. Then the thought of our short time spent on earth presents to my mind an image of you. Time and decay argue about how best to corrupt your body, changing your day of youth to dark night. But I battle time in my poems for love of you. As time takes away your youthful qualities, I make them new again in these sonnets.

Sonnet 16 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self 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 you 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 your self in eyes of men.
   To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,
   And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

Notes

wherefore: Why.
decay: Aging; death.
With  . . . rhyme: Fathering a child would be a better way to preserve your memory than my verse is.
stand . . . top: Are in the prime of youth.
maiden gardens: Metaphor for young women in whom the young man's child could grow.
flowers: Children.
painted counterfeit: Painted portrait; sonnets that describe the young man.

Meaning

You could make war on time in a better way than I can. Namely, you could father a child. He or she would be a greater blessing than my poetry to preserve your good qualities, for the child would be a new you. At this moment, you are in the full blossom of youth, and many a maiden would take joy in marrying you and bearing your child, who would better represent you than my sonnets. These sonnets cannot make you fully live in the eyes of men. But passing yourself on to a child that you have authored will enable you to live all over again in his person.

Sonnet 17 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say "This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces."
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
   But were some child of yours alive that time,
   You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme.

Notes

high deserts: Superior qualities.
it is but a tomb . . . parts: My poetry is like a tomb because it hides your qualities.
numbers: Verses, poems.
touches: Qualities, attributes.
papers: Poems
old . . . tongue: Lying old men.
rage: Zeal, passion, enthusiasm.
stretched: exaggerated.
You . . . rhyme: You would live on in your child and in my poetry

Meaning

Will future readers of my verse believe me when I tell them about all of your superior qualities? So far, I have only hinted at these qualities because a full description of them would make readers doubt that anyone could have such extraordinary attributes. They would call me a liar. They would say I am exaggerating (with “stretched meter”). However, if you marry and father a child, people will see a reflection of you in the child and, thus, my poetry about you will be taken as the truth.

Sonnet 18 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

This sonnet is presented and explained on the main page (The Sonnet: A Study Guide). It is probably the most popular of all the sonnets because of the beauty of its poetry and rhythm. It differs from the previous seventeen sonnets in one key respect: It does not urge the young man to marry and have children. The reason for this new approach is that the author is now convinced that his poetry alone is enough to preserve the memory of the young man's outstanding qualities.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
   So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Notes

eye of heaven: Sun.
every . . . declines: Every attractive person declines from beauty some time.
ow'st: ownest; owns.
Nor . . . shade: Example of personification. (Death is spoken of as a person).
this: This poem.

Meaning


If I compared you to a summer day, I'd have to say you are more beautiful and serene. By comparison, summer is rough on budding life, and it doesn't last long either. At times the summer sun is too hot, and at other times clouds dim its brilliance. Everything fair in nature becomes less fair at some time. No one can change (trim) nature or chance. However, you yourself will not fade or lose ownership of your fairness. Not even death will claim you, because these lines I write will immortalize you.

Sonnet 19 (Addressed to Time)

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.

Notes

Devouring Time: The speaker addresses time in a figure of speech known as apostrophe.
blunt . . . paws: Blunt thou the claws of the lion's paws.
phoenix: In Egyptian mythology, the phoenix was a bird that lived five hundred years, then died in a fire after the sun ignited an Arabian tree on which the phoenix was perched. The tree was located near Heliopolis, Egypt. From the ashes, the phoenix rose to new life.
fleet'st: Speedily pass by.

Meaning

Time, you may work your effects on the world at large. Blunt the lion's claws as he ages. Allow the earth to continue to entomb its creatures when their life is no more. Pull out the old and decaying teeth from the tiger's jaws. End the life of the phoenix, the bird that has had the power to regenerate itself. As you swiftly pass, make some seasons of the year happy and some sorry, according to your wishes. But I forbid you to etch the signs of aging into the brow of my beloved friend. Instead, allow him to pass through life untainted by the corruption of years. However, if you do your worst against him, he will still remain young and pristine in my verses.

Sonnet 20 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
   But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
   Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

Notes

with . . . painted: Free of cosmetics; natural.
master mistress: Oxymoron (juxtaposing contradictory terms). One cannot be a master (male) and a mistress (female) at the same time.
but not . . . . change: Not fickle; not changing at every whim.
wert: were.
wrought: Made.
by  . . . defeated: By the addition of your penis, she ended my thoughts of developing a male-female relationship with you.

Meaning

You have the face and gentle heart of a woman, but not the fickleness of her temperament. Your eyes are brighter than a woman's. However, they do not roll with flirtation the way a woman's do. You are a man who attracts the eyes of both men and women. Although you were first created as a woman, Nature endowed you with the male reproductive organ. But since nature marked you out for women's pleasure, I'll at least be able to keep and appreciate your affection while women pursue you for your good locks.

Sonnet 21 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

So is it not with me as with that Muse,
Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,
Making a couplement of proud compare
With sun and moon, with earth and sea's rich gems,
With April's first-born flowers, and all things rare,
That heaven's air in this huge rondure hems.
O! let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother's child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fixed in heaven's air:
   Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
   I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

Notes

that Muse: Another writer.
painted beauty: One who uses cosmetics.
every fair . . . rehearse: He compares (rehearses) his beloved with every fair (beautiful) thing that he sees.
Making a couplement: Making his beloved and the beautiful thing two of a kind.
rondure: The earth.
though . . .  air: A compliment. The speaker's friend does not need to be compared to gold candles or other artificial objects. His natural pleasing appearance stands for itself. 

Meaning

I am not like that other poet. He writes about a woman who paints herself with cosmetics to enhance her looks. In his verse, he uses wildly extravagant language to describe her, characterizing her as an ornament of heaven. He compares her to the sun and the moon, to precious gems, and to spring's first flowers. I don't need to use such exaggerations when I write about the friend I love. Instead, all I need to do is tell the truth. For he is as fair as anyone else who walks the earth. The truth will serve him best, without lavish, high-flown phrases to adorn his description. I wll not cheapen my poetry with such phrases just so I can attract attention and sell my work.

Sonnet 22 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time's furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate
For all that beauty that doth cover thee,
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O! therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
   Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain,
   Thou gav'st me thine not to give back again.

Notes

glass: Mirror
So . . . date: As long as you and youth are the same agein others words, as long as you remain young.
furrows: Wrinkles; signs of aging.
Then . . . expiate: Then let death claim me as payment for my sins (days).
seemly raiment: The youth's beauty. (The speaker's heart wears the beauty like clothing.)
in thy breast . . . me: My heart lives in you, and your heart lives in me.
be of thyself . . . will: Be concerned about your welfare; be as concerned about; be as concerned about it as I am.
chary: Safe; free from harm.
Presume . . . again: Do not presume that your heart will go on beating when mine stops, for your heart and mine are the same. These lines could be a warning not to cross the poet.

Meaning

Even though my mirror tells me that I am aging, the speaker says, I will not grow old while you remain young. However, when I see wrinkles (“time’s furrows”) on your face, then I will look for death to come for me and take me as payment for any offenses I may have committed in my life. Your heart and mine are bound together, and I will guard yours as carefully as a nurse caring for a baby. But do not presume that you will be unaffected when my heart is no longer able to beat for you. Here, the speaker appears to be warning the young man that ending their friendship would have adverse consequences.

Sonnet 23 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

As an unperfect actor on the stage 
Who with his fear is put beside his part, 
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage, 
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart; 
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say 
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite, 
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay
O’ercharg’d with burden of mine own love’s might
O! let my books be then the eloquence 
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast, 
Who plead for love, and look for recompense, 
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d
   O! learn to read what silent love hath writ: 
   To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit. 

Notes

for fear of trust: The speaker, afraid to trust himself to remember the right words, tends to forget them.
in mine . . . love's might: The speaker's ability to keep his composure dwindles under the burden of his strong love for his friend (the young man).
dumb presagers: Mute predictors or indicators. The speaker has decided to convey his feelings through his writing. Writing, of course, makes no sound; it is mute, or dumb.
Who: The dumb presagers of line 10.
More than . . . express'd: The speaker pleads with more earnestness than has another writer or admirer of the young man.

Meaning

The speaker is like an an actor with stagefright or like a "fierce thing" with so much rage that his heart weakens. First, like the actor, the speaker is afraid to speak the lines expressing his love for the young man; for he might use the wrong words. Second, like the fierce creature, the speaker is weak under the burden of emotionthe emotion of love. 
Therefore, he says, he will let his writing do the speaking for him. The young man should learn to read of the speaker's silent love. He will then be able to hear the speaker's words in the words written on the page.

Sonnet 24 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck 
And yet methinks I have astronomy, 
But not to tell of good or evil luck, 
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain, and wind
Or say with princes if it shall go well, 
By oft predict that I in heaven find: 
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive, 
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As "Truth and beauty shall together thrive, 
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;" 
   Or else of thee this I prognosticate: 
   "Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date." 

Notes

the stars: Astrology.
dearths: Poverty and famine.
seasons' quality: The quality of farm crops.
thunder . . . wind: Problems; difficulties.
constant stars: The young man's eyes.
If from . . . convert: If the young man ceases spending so much time on himself and marries and fathers a child.

Meaning

The speaker says he does not base his judgment on the movement of the stars, as astrologers do. However, he does have an instinct for predicting outcomesbut not to fortell good or evil events, or plagues, poverty and famine, or crop harvests. Nor can he briefly sum up what will befall a person or whether a prince will have good fortune. 
But merely by looking into the eyes of the young man, he can determine that truth and beauty will endure if the young man gives up his wastrel ways and fathers a child . If he does not do so, truthy and beauty will die with him instead of living on in the child. 

Sonnet 25 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook'd for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes' favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun's eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
   Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
     Where I may not remove nor be removed.

Notes

are . . . stars: Enjoy good fortune.
Of . . . boast: Boast of public honour and proud titles.
princes: Rulers such as kings, queens, emperors, dukes, and so on.
famoused: Made famous by his fighting.
foiled: Defeated.
razed quite: Removed entirely.

Meaning

Let people favored by fortune boast of their honors and proud titles. I myself—lacking public honors and lofty titles—cannot makes such boasts. However, I derive great satisfaction from receiving your unsolicited and continuing affection. In this respect, I am more fortunate than a ruler's favored subjects assembled at court like marigolds in a meadow. If the sun shines on them, they thrive. But if the sun denies them its radiance, they languish. I am also more fortunate than a battlefield warrior who has lost one encounter after winning a thousand. His defeat erases all of his honors. How happy I am that I love you and you love me in return. No one can take this pleasure—this honor—away from me.
.