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Shakespeare's Sonnets
With Summaries and Annotations
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1-25     26-50     51-75     76-101     102-127     128-154
..C Compiled by Michael J. Cummings... 2003, 2008, 2013

Sonnet 51 (Addressed to the Young Man)

Thus can my love excuse the slow offence
Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.
O! what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind,
In winged speed no motion shall I know,
Then can no horse with my desire keep pace.
Therefore desire, (of perfect'st love being made)
Shall neigh, no dull flesh, in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade-
   Since from thee going, he went wilful-slow,
   Towards thee I'll run, and give him leave to go.

Notes

offence: Pace.
thence: From where you are; from that place.
dull bearer: A horse.
posting: Riding fast, rest post horses. In Shakespeare's time, such horses were posted at relay stations along a main route. A rider could gallop from station to station, renting a fresh horse at each stop.
swift extremity: Extreme speed.
In winged  . . . know: Though riding at top speed, the speaker will feel as if he is not moving at all. His eagerness to reunite with his friend makes the return trip seem agonizingly slow.
But  love, for love: But my desire (love) to be reunited with my loving friend

Meaning

The first word of Sonnet 51—the conjunctive adverb thus—links the poem with the previous sonnet, in which the speaker bemoans his separation from his friend. The speaker continues in Sonnet 51 to speak of the slowness of his progress toward his destination. Why, he asks, should he hurry on a journey that takes him away from his friend, from whom he does not wish to be separated? Not until he returns from his trip will he hurry.  At that time, he will use post horses so that he will be able to travel at top speed.
But even when he is riding at a gallop, his progress will seem slow. His eagerness to be reunited with his friend will outpace the speed of any horse. This eagerness—this desire to see his friend again—will neigh like a horse racing along. The horse will tire quickly, becoming a jade (an old, worn-out horse). But because the speaker's love for his friend makes him spur the horse on relentlessly, he does not blame the beast for exhausting itself.
    After the return journey, he'll give the horse “leave to go.”

Sonnet 52 (Addressed to the Young Man)

So am I as the rich, whose blessed key,
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in the carcanet.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special-blest,
By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.
   Blessed are you whose worthiness gives scope,
   Being had, to triumph, being lacked, to hope.

Notes

blunting . . . pleasure
: If one does a pleasurable activity often, satisfaction derived from it diminishes.
carcanet: Ornamental headband or collar.
wardrobe . . . hide: A wardrobe or closet "hides" a robe hung in it.

Meaning

You are like a treasure chest of a rich man. He unlocks it and gazes upon the treasure only on special occasions. Doing so more frequently would lessen the pleasure of appreciating the contents. A great saint's feast day is celebrated only once a year. Likewise, precious jewels are spaced apart on a decorated collar, not lined up one adjacent to the other. Moreover, a finely tailored robe is saved for ceremonial occasions. Too much of a good thing diminishes one's desire for it. Blessed are you if you give me an opportunity to appreciate your presence—or at least to hope for it
—on a special occasion.

Sonnet 53 (Addressed to the Young Man)

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
   In all external grace you have some part,
   But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

Notes

whereof: Of what.
And you . . . lend: Your good qualities are reflected in (lent to) the images of others.
Adonis: In Greek mythology, a handsome teenager pursued by the goddess of love. For more information, see the Venus and Adonis study guide.
counterfeit: Adonis is only an imitation, a poor one, of the young man in the sonnet.
Helen: In Greek mythology, the most beautiful woman in the world. For more information, see Shakespeare and Mythology: The Trojan War.
tires: Attire; clothing.
foison: Harvest time.

Meaning

What are you made of? Like everyone else, you are a single physical entity with a special combination of features that constitute the whole of your being and appearance. You are unique. There is no one like you. Yet I see in you reflections of others with extraordinary physical attributes. In Greek mythology, Adonis was the handsomest of young men. He was chased by the goddess of love herself. Yet descriptions of him suggest that he was only a poor imitation of you. There is some of him in you, but only a shadowy reflection. Greek mythology also tells us that Helen of Troy was a supreme example of physical grace and beauty. But if one imagined you painted in ancient Greek attire, you would set a new and higher standard of perfection. And what of nature? Spring has its glory, but only a shadow of the glory in you. Harvest time brings a great bounty, but your bounty is far greater. It is as if you are the standard against which all human beings—and all of nature—are to be measured.

Comment

This high praise for the young man treats him as a model of perfection that others can only imitate. This view of the young man resembles the way the Greek philosopher Plato perceived the world. Everything in the world—a human being, a tree, or even a table or chair—is merely an imperfect imitation of an ideal form in the divine realm. The ideal forms in the heavens represent absolute perfection. The earthly versions are mere shadows

Sonnet 54 (Addressed to the Young Man)

O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:
   And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
   When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth.

Notes

canker: Blossom of a dog rose, a pink or white wild rose that has no fragrance.
sweetest odours: Perfumes, rose water (used in foods and perfumes), and other fragrant preparations.
vade: Vanish, disappear.
verse . . . truth: This sonnet presents the beauty of your truth
—that is, your excellent inner qualities.

Meaning

Beauty seems much more beautiful when truth graces it, just as a fair rose appears fairer when when a sweet fragrance lives in it. Like roses, canker blossoms have a fair appearance and thorny stems, and they dance in the breeze. But people ignore these blossoms, for they lack the fragrance of the rose. They have no scent at all. So they fade and die alone. However, when the rose dies, its sweetness lives on in the fragrances made from it. It will be that way for you. When you fade ("vade", line 14), you will live on in your truth—the beauty of your inward qualities—which I will distill and write about in my poems.

Sonnet 55 (Addressed to the Young Man)

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
   So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
   You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

Notes

gilded: Covered with a thin layer of gold.
this . . . rhyme: This sonnet.
contents: Lines of the sonnet.
unswept: Not cleaned or polished; neglected.
sluttish: Unkempt; sloppy.
broils: The upheavals and battles of wars.
Mars: In Roman mythology, the god of war. His Greek name was Ares.
oblivious enmity: Enmity (or hatred) of enemies who are not heedful of the harm they cause; hatred of enemies who easily forget their destructive acts.

Meaning

Neither marble nor the gilded monuments of princes will outlive this poem. But you will live on in my rhyme to shine more brightly than any monument sullied by the ravages of time. When war overturns statues and leaves a path of destruction, this record of your memory will survive the battlefield fire. All who are not yet born will read my praise of you in these lines. Your memory will live on until the end of time.

Sonnet 56 (Observations of the Poet)

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but to-day by feeding is allayed,
To-morrow sharpened in his former might:
So, love, be thou, although to-day thou fill
Thy hungry eyes, even till they wink with fulness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love, with a perpetual dulness.
Let this sad interim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
   As call it winter, which being full of care,
   Makes summer's welcome, thrice more wished, more rare.

Notes

appetite: lust; craving.
allayed: Lessened
two contracted: A man and woman pledged to marry

Meaning

The speaker addresses love itself, asking it to renew its intensity. He asks love to be stronger than lust. Though satisfied one day, lust renews its intensity the following day. Love, too, should renew its vitality. Today, the speaker says, you (love) may fill your hungry eyes with what you desire. But tomorrow do not languish in dullness just because you got your fill the previous day. Instead, revive your spirit. Let the interval between one day and the next be like an ocean separating (by a short distance) a man and a woman pledged to be married. On one shore is the husband-to-be; on the other, the wife-to-be. When they return to their shores each day, the sight of each other renews their love with greater and greater intensity. Summer is welcome after a long, hard winter. Love should likewise be welcome after a separation.

Comment

When a poet addresses an abstraction
—in this case, love—he uses a figure of speech called apostrophe.

Sonnet 57 (Addressed to the Young Man)

Being your slave what should I do but tend
Upon the hours, and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end hour,
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,
When you have bid your servant once adieu;
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are, how happy you make those.
   So true a fool is love, that in your will,
   Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.

Notes

do . . . hours: Stand by and wait.
adieu: Good-bye.
Save: Except for.

Meaning

Because I am your slave, I have nothing to do but stand by for many hours to await your commands. I have no time to spend on other activities. All I can do is remain in readiness until you call for me. At the rare times when I am in your presence, I dare not complain about how boring it is to watch the clock for you, my sovereign, or how bitter it is to be separated from you. Moreover, I dare not ask where you go or speculate about what occupies you. I must simply wait and think of nothing except how happy you make the people with you. I am such a fool. You can do anything, and I will think no ill of you.

Comment

This sonnet relies on irony to make its point. Consider that the speaker is irritated that the young man ignores him for long periods in order to spend time with others. In expressing his dissatisfaction, the speaker says he dares not complain to the young man or question him about where he goes. Yet the poem is one long complaint written to reproach the young man. 

Sonnet 58 (Addressed to the Young Man)

That god forbid, that made me first your slave,
I should in thought control your times of pleasure,
Or at your hand the account of hours to crave,
Being your vassal, bound to stay your leisure!
O! let me suffer, being at your beck,
The imprison'd absence of your liberty;
And patience, tame to sufferance, bide each check,
Without accusing you of injury.
Be where you list, your charter is so strong
That you yourself may privilege your time
To what you will; to you it doth belong
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.
   I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,
   Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.

Notes

vassal: Servant.
beck: Beckoning; summons.
imprison'd absence: Imprisoning absence. In effect, your absence from me isolates me in a prison as I await your return.
bide: Abide; endure.
list: Desire.
charter: Liberty; power to act.

Meaning

The god that made me your slave should forbid me to even think about controlling your activities, in particular your pursuit of pleasure. That same god should forbid me from asking you where you have been and what you have been doing. Oh, let me simply suffer when you are absent; and let me be patient without accusing you of offending me. Go where you wish. You have the freedom to spend your time in any way you desire. If you do wrong, you have the power to pardon yourself. Meanwhile, I must wait, though waiting is hell, and not question you about your activities—whether they are right or wrong.

Sonnet 59 (Addressed to the Young Man)

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil'd,
Which labouring for invention bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child.
Oh that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done,
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or where better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
   Oh sure I am the wits of former days,
   To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Notes

invention: Something new.
bear: Give birth to.
burthen: burden.
former child: Old idea.
five . . . suns: Five hundred years.
Whether . . . they: Whether we have improved over them in our writing or whether they are better in some ways.
whether revolution: Whether our innovations.
wits: Poets; writers.

Meaning

If there is nothing new to command our attention—only that which has happened before—how are our brains fooled into conceiving the same old idea to inspire new poetry? The record of history could show me someone like you in an old book. Then I could learn what people of an earlier time would say about the wonder of your appearance and, in so doing, find out whether their description of a handsome young man was better or worse than—or about the same as—my description of you. You can be sure that the writers of former ages had devoted great praise to subjects whose qualities were not equal to yours.

Sonnet 60 (Addressed to the Young Man)

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
   And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand
   Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Notes

Each . . . before: One wave takes the place of the wave that was there moments before.
In sequent . . . contend: This action is repeated without end.
Nativity: Early life.
main of light: Morning light without shadows.
Crawls to maturity:
Young people crawl figuratively, like a baby.
Crooked eclipses: Effects of aging (aging dims the light).
transfix: Paralyze; stop the ability to bloom and flourish.
delves the parallels: Carves wrinkles in the brow.
Feeds on . . . truth: Consumes youthfulness.
nothing . . . mow: Eventually death (scythe) cuts down the aging man.

Meaning
.
This sonnet says time passes swiftly, just as swiftly as ocean waves rushing toward a shore. The word minutes in line 2 and the number of the sonnet, 60, suggest that life passes like the 60 minutes in an hour. Although a young man stands for a while in the bright sunlight of youth, advancing age will all-too-soon appear as a cloud that hides the sun. Wrinkles will appear and infirmities will develop. Eventually, death—with its scythe—will come to reap its harvest. However, the poet’s verse will live on to extol the qualities of the man as he was in his youth. .

Sonnet 61 (Addressed to the Young Man)

Is it thy will, thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
Is it thy spirit that thou send'st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake:
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
   For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
   From me far off, with others all too near.

Notes

shadows like to thee: Images resembling the young man.
scope . . .  jealousy: Extent and nature of your jealousy.

Meaning

While the young man is out entertaining guests, Shakespeare lies awake seeing images of him. He asks whether the images he sees were sent by the young man, perhaps to spy on him. Then he answers his own question by saying that the young man could not have sent the images, since the young man’s love for him is not that great. No, what keeps Shakespeare awake is his love for the young man. The poet is ever on the watch for the young man to appear even though the young man is apparently elsewhere enjoying the company of other acquaintances. There is a bit of irony in this poem, in that Shakespeare wonders whether the youth is watching him, evening prying, when it is Shakespeare who is ever vigilant and watchful. 

Sonnet 62 (Addressed to the Young Man)

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye
And all my soul, and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account;
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my glass shows me myself indeed
Beated and chopp'd with tanned antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
   'Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise,
   Painting my age with beauty of thy days.

Notes

Sin . . . eye: The speaker may be alluding to Narcissus, a young man in Greek mythology who fell in love with himself after seeing his image reflected in a pool of water. The use of “eye” in line 1 and “glass” (mirror) in line 9 supports the view that this sonnet alludes to the Narcissus myth. However, unlike Narcissus, the speaker ages and sees the effects of time on his appearance.
tanned: Wrinkled; thrashed; drawn and browned like tanned leather.
'Tis thee, myself: The speaker seems to be saying that he and the young man are so close that they are the same person.

Meaning

I am guilty of the sin of self-love. This sin possesses my eyes, my soul—in fact, all of me—and is so entrenched in my heart that I think my face and shape are beyond compare and that I have more admirable qualities than any other man. However, when a mirror reveals signs of aging in my appearance, I realize that I am lying to myself; I am a reprehensible sinner. The truth is, the qualities that I praise in myself are actually qualities that you possess. When I paint a picture of myself, figuratively speaking, I use you as the model.

Sonnet 63 (Observations of the Speaker)

Against my love shall be as I am now,
With Time's injurious hand crushed and o'erworn;
When hours have drained his blood and filled his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travelled on to age's steepy night;
And all those beauties whereof now he's king
Are vanishing, or vanished out of sight,
Stealing away the treasure of his spring;
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age's cruel knife,
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love's beauty, though my lover's life:
   His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,
   And they shall live, and he in them still green.

Notes

With . . . hand: The speaker personifies time as a destroyer of youth.
the treasure  . . . spring: His (the young man's) youth.
though . . . life: Though he (time) will take his life.
green: Young.

Meaning

The day is coming when my friend shall be as I am now—overworn and etched with the imperfections of the injurious hand of time. The passing hours, days, and years will remove the rosy hue from his complexion and crease his brow with wrinkles. After his youthful morning becomes aged night, all of his good looks will have vanished; age will have stolen his youth. However, I am taking action to prevent time's knife from cutting out the memory of my friend from posterity. People of the future will remember him in these sonnets that I am writing. His beauty shall live in my poems; he will still be in the spring of youth.

Sonnet 64 (Observations of the Speaker)

When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
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;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
   This thought is as a death which cannot choose
   But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Notes

fell: Deadly.
sometime: Sometimes.
down-razed: Fallen to ruin.
brass eternal: Brass is noted for its durability.
main: Wide-open sea.
store: Gain.
ruminate: Think over; consider.

Meaning

I have seen time deface proud monuments to the dead and tear down lofty towers. I have seen time and death, raging beasts that kill life and attack the memory of the dead, willfully destroy brass statues and memorials erected to eulogize noble men and women. I have seen swelling oceans steal shorelines, and then land take it back again, in a continual war of increase and loss. Decay, ruin, change—they are inevitable—and time will one day take away the friend I love. This is a deathly thought that makes me weep with the realization that one day I will lose him.

Sonnet 65 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer's honey breath hold out,
Against, When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O! none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Notes

wrackful: Destructive; ruinous.
battering days: Time's destructive power.
Nor  . . . decays: Steel gates are not strong enough to withstand time's onslaught.
alack: Alas.
Time's best jewel: The young man.

Meaning

Time overcomes brass and stone, the earth and the sea. And how can beauty stand against it? Beauty is no stronger than a flower. Time will also take away the sweet breath of summer and inflict decay on rocks and steel gates. Oh, where will my friend—a glittering jewel—hide from time's treasure chest? What hand can hold back time's progress? Who can prevent time from destroying beauty? No one except me. I can immortalize beauty in the words I write in my sonnets.

Sonnet 66 (Musings of the Speaker)

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
   Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
   Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

Notes

these: Injustice; corruption; sinful behavior; foolishness; stupidity.
desert . . . born: Deserving person forced to beg for a living.
needy nothing: Persons who need nothing; persons who have everything.
strumpeted: Turned into promiscuity; virtue renounced in favor of becoming a whore or prostitute.
sway: Rulership.
made tongue-tied: Censored; forbidden; banned.

Meaning

I am tired of all the injustice in the world and cry out for the eternal rest of death. Consider that so many worthy people of high promise end up as beggars and that people who have the most end up getting even more—the finest clothes, for example. I am tired of people who readily break promises and people who receive high honors when all they deserve is rebuke. I am tired of maidens who so willingly yield their virtue, of gossips who slander the upright, of weak leaders who disable the strong, of authorities who censor or repress artistry. I am tried of stupid people who hold sway over the intelligent. I am tired of people who label plain and simple truths as simplistic. I am tired of bad people who hold good people in subservience—and so-called good people who compromise their principles to serve bad people. Yes, I am tired of the world and everything in it—except the young man. He is the reason I live on. )

Sonnet 67 (Musings of the Speaker)

Ah! wherefore with infection should he live,
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should achieve,
And lace itself with his society?
Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
And steal dead seeming of his living hue?
Why should poor beauty indirectly seek
Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?
Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is,
Beggared of blood to blush through lively veins?
For she hath no exchequer now but his,
And proud of many, lives upon his gains.
   O! him she stores, to show what wealth she had
   In days long since, before these last so bad.

Notes

wherefore: Why
infection: Evil; corruption; wrongful behavior.
sin . . . achieve: By associating itself with the young man, sin pretends to be virtuous.
false painting: Application of cosmetics.
Beggared: Devoid.
exchequer: Treasury.

Meaning

Why should the young man have to live with so much evil around him? Why should he have to grace impiety with his presence? Those who commit impiety use his presence to pretend to be better and thereby gain advantage. Why should cosmetics be allowed to imitate the blush of his cheek, creating a lifeless hue that degrades the living hue? Why should anyone indirectly seek beauty in an ordinary rose when the young man is the most perfect rose of all? Why should he go on living, now that nature is so bankrupt of vital resources that it cannot even create enough blood to rush through veins? He lives on because he is the only resource from which nature can borrow to beautify herself and her offspring. Thus, she uses him to display the great store of beauty she had in days gone by.

Sonnet 68 (Observations About the Unidentified Young Man)

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty lived and died as flowers do now,
Before these bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow;
Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away,
To live a second life on second head;
Ere beauty's dead fleece made another gay:
In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another's green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new;
   And him as for a map doth Nature store,
   To show false Art what beauty was of yore.

bastard: Not genuine; inferior
fair: Beauty
durst: Dared.
shorn: Cut.
fleece: Covering of hair.
green: Youth; youthful appearance.

Thus, the young man serves as an example of what beauty was like in the days when people—like flowers—displayed beauty in all its glory before dying. Now, people are attempting to duplicate beauty cosmetically. They are even snipping golden tresses from the dead to make wigs for themselves. Such fleeces make them happy. But in the young man, one can see how beauty once was, pure and unadorned, without the use of someone else's stolen youth. So it is that nature sustains him to show false art what real beauty was in former times.

Sonnet 69 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Those parts of thee that the world's eye doth view
Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend;
All tongues, the voice of souls, give thee that due,
Uttering bare truth, even so as foes commend.
Thy outward thus with outward praise is crown'd;
But those same tongues, that give thee so thine own,
In other accents do this praise confound
By seeing farther than the eye hath shown.
They look into the beauty of thy mind,
And that in guess they measure by thy deeds;
Then, churls, their thoughts, although their eyes were kind,
To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds:
   But why thy odour matcheth not thy show,
   The soil is this, that thou dost common grow.

doth: Does.
All . . . souls: All persons.
churls: Rude, surly persons; peasants.
soil: Reason.

No part of your physical appearance requires improvement. Everyone who sees you agrees, even your enemies. You receive outward praise for your outward person. But the same ones who praise your appearance offer less-than-complimentary opinions about your inward self, your mind. Gauging the quality of your thoughts by your deeds, they maintain that the fair flower on the outside is not so fair on the inside. It may be morally corrupt. They say this because of the questionable company you keep. By choosing to live in a garden with rank weeds, you are beginning to smell like them.

Sonnet 70 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect,
For slander's mark was ever yet the fair;
The ornament of beauty is suspect,
A crow that flies in heaven's sweetest air.
So thou be good, slander doth but approve
Thy worth the greater, being wooed of time;
For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love,
And thou present'st a pure unstained prime.
Thou hast passed by the ambush of young days
Either not assailed, or victor being charged;
Yet this thy praise cannot be so thy praise,
To tie up envy, evermore enlarged,
   If some suspect of ill masked not thy show,
   Then thou alone kingdoms of hearts shouldst owe.

Notes

slander's . . . fair: Gossips, envious of beautiful people, tell lies about them.
slander . . . greater: Slander only makes you seem better, since everyone knows that slanderers attack the best of people.
unstained prime: Upright youth.
ambush: Temptations
Yet . . . enlarged: But my praise for you in the sonnets will not stop the envious from talking about you.

Meaning

Don't worry about people who slander you with accusations of shameful behavior. They attack you because they are jealous of your good looks. They see you as a crow that dares to fly in the sweet air of heaven. But their false talk serves only to enhance your reputation by making people realize that vicious gossips target the best of men, not the worst. Fortunately, you have so far navigated your youthful years without yielding to temptation. But keep in mind that my praise of you in my sonnets won't silence envious gossips. There are will always be those who say you hide dirty secrets behind you outer appearance.

Sonnet 71 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
   Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
   And mock you with me after I am gone.

Notes

bell: Church bell at a funeral.
fled: Dead.
with . . . worms: To lie in a grave.
compounded  . . . clay: Buried.

Meaning
 
When I am dead, don't mourn for me any longer than it takes to hear the doleful church bell ring at my funeral, alerting the world that I have left the world to live in a grave with worms. No, if you read this line, don't remember the hand that wrote it. For I love you so much that I don't want you to fret over me if doing so will make you sad. O, if, you read this verse when I am buried in clay, do not so much as mention my insignificant name. Instead, let your love decay, just as I decay, lest the world mock you for hanging onto the memory of me. 

Sonnet 72
(Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

O! lest the world should task you to recite
What merit lived in me, that you should love
After my death,—dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove.
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart:
O! lest your true love may seem false in this
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
   For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
   And so should you, to love things nothing worth.


Notes
you . . . prove: You will find nothing worthy in me.
niggard: Stingy.

Meaning

If the world about what merits I possess that live on in your memory after my death, simply forget about me. For you will find nothing meritorious in me for you to call attention to--unless you lie about my life, giving me praise that I do not deserve. Stingy truth will not yield anything in my that is praiseworthy. People will think that you speak well of me simply because you loved me. It would be better to bury my name and reputation with my body. Doing so assure that my name will not shame you or me. I am ashamed of my deeds. You should be too; you not love worthless things.

Sonnet 73 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
   This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Notes


behold: Notice; realize that.
Bare ruin'd choirs: metaphor comparing the branches to church choirs.
Death's second self: Night.
on the ashes . . . lie: The fire of life is dying; only embers remain on ashes.
Consumed . . . nourish'd by: Paradox
consumed by the love (fire) that nourished him.
This thou perceiv'st: When you realize that I am dying.

Meaning

In this sonnet, Shakespeare—though young when he wrote it—assumes the persona of an old man reflecting on his advancing age.  Here is what he tells the young man: I am like trees as they appear late in the year—either autumn (signified by yellow “leaves”) or early winter (signified by “none”) when most or all of the leaves have fallen from the trees. The boughs of the trees, once alive with choirs of singing birds, now are bare—like empty seats in the chancel or choir loft of a decaying church. (Many churches and monasteries in Shakespeare’s day were in ruins as a result of  King Henry VIII’s crackdown on Catholicism before Shakespeare was born.) I am also like evening after the “sunset fadeth.” The blackness of night, or death, will eventually take me, sealing me from life as I lie at eternal rest. Finally, I am like dying embers on ashes—the burned-out remnants of the fire of my youth. 

Comment

The last two lines are addressed to the young man. They appear to have two meanings: (1) You will love the old man all the more because you know that I am near death; (2) you will love and appreciate your own life more because you now realize that the green leaf of youth will soon turn yellow and fall.

Sonnet 74 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

But be contented when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch's knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
   The worth of that is that which it contains,
   And that is this, and this with thee remains.    

Notes

fell: Deadly, cruel.
Without all bail: No one can post bail to rescue a person from death.
in this line: In this poem.
for  . . . stay: The poem shall remain behind as a remembrance of my affection for you.
dregs: Least important part; body.

Meaning

Be content when death takes me from you. Bear in mind, however, that I will still be alive in these lines that I write. They shall stand as a memorial for you. When you read this sonnet, you will be reading about the part of me that was dedicated to you, my soul. The earth can have my body, but my spirit—the better part of me—is yours. So your only loss would be the worst part of me, my body, the prey of worms. Cowardly death will kill it, as with the knife of an assassin. But my corpse will be too base for you to remember. What is important is not the body that I leave behind, but the verse I have written that will continue to live with you.

Sonnet 75 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season'd showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As 'twixt a miser and his wealth is found.
Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better'd that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.
   Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
   Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

Notes

'twixt: Between.
anon: Soon.
Sometime: Sometimes.
surfeit: Get my full.

Meaning

You are as important to me as food is to the body or as rain is to the ground. The peace you give me is calming and serene, with no more strife than there is between a miser and his gold. Although I enjoy your company one moment, the next moment I worry that someone will try to steal you away. And although I think it best to be alone with you, I sometimes desire to let the world see what a treasure I have. The sight of you fills my eyes with a feast. But after I look away for a while, I become hungry for another look. I do not possess or pursue any other delight, only you.  Thus, do I pine for you when you are out of my sight and then get my full when you are near.
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