No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow and this shall ever be;
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.
As the sequence of sonnets dedicated to the youth draws to a close, the poet finally and crucially insists that his love is not of a mortal composition. It is not anything that is subject to time’s destruction or to the fickle wheel of fortune. In these three last sonnets he affirms his truth and constancy, with a love which will outlive the pyramids, and the whims of political change, and all external forms of favour and preferment. No matter that all his past experience has shown him that the object of love may not be worth the devotion he lavishes upon it. It is the love that counts. It is the ability to make the sacrifice of oneself. It is the strength of will that makes something out of nothing, and produces from a trivial and transitory romance something which lasts as long as time itself lasts – it is that which must be extolled and hymned, for if that cannot be saved from the general destruction, then nothing else is worth talking about. The rest is silence, as Hamlet said, and this love must be treated in such a way, as a silent mystery, for there is no other fitting end to it.
As KDJ points out, these three sonnets, 123-5, “can be read as three comments on the ‘wonderful year’ 1603-4, during which many poets wrote tributes on James I, but Shakespeare did not”. (KDJ p.356, and Intro. p.26.) His love for the youth was irrelevant to pomp and circumstance, and far removed from politics. Although other possible targets of reference for ‘the pyramids’ may be cited, such as the obelisks discovered in Egypt and transported to Rome in the late 1580’s and erected by Pope Sixtus V, they may be too remote. We are nowadays more willing to allow a later date of composition for some of the sonnets, for it is no longer so necessary to hide their controversial nature as being the product of an immature writer. The level of sophistication and the compression of meaning found in many of them is comparable with some of the best to be found in the plays. If the reference here and in 125 is to James’ coronation, then this group of three sonnets would post-date March 1604, and the possible allusion to the gunpowder plotters in the couplet of 124 would indicate a date after 1605.
The 1609 Quarto Version
NO ! Time, thou ſhalt not boſt that I doe change,
Thy pyramyds buylt vp with newer might
To me are nothing nouell,nothing ſtrange,
They are but dreſſings of a former ſight:
Our dates are breefe,and therefor we admire,
What thou doſt foyſt vpon vs that is ould,
And rather make them borne to our defire,
Then thinke that we before haue heard them toulde:
Thy regiſters and thee I both defie,
Not wondring at the preſent,nor the paſt,
For thy records,and what we ſee doth lye,
Made more or les by thy continuall haſt:
This I doe vow and this ſhall euer be,
I will be true diſpight thy ſyeth and thee.
1. No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:No – Q uses an exclamation mark to emphasise the negative. This and the following two sonnets have a pattern of ‘No!‘ starting a quatrain. In this sonnet it is the first quatrain, in the next the second, and finally, in 125, the third quatrain. In the epilogue sonnet, 126, we would expect it at the beginning of the couplet, but since the couplet is missing in that one, the absence becomes a sort of ultimate negative, a final emptiness, an unstated triumph which denies the superiority of time over love, or humanity, or even over the words which we use to express our aspirations.
boast – Time usually boasts and exults over his destruction of physical objects, as for example in Sonn.64
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;
or 107, where he (and death)
insults o’er dull and speechless tribes.
The defiance of this opening statement, a sort of throwing down of the gauntlet, is re-emphasised in line 9 at the opening of the third quatrain.2. Thy pyramids built up with newer mightThy pyramids – Several suggestions have been made as to what might be referred to here. It could be a general term, relating to all lofty and grandiose constructions, which are especially the concern of time, since time will eventually return them to ‘razed oblivion’, and because they were often structures built specifically to outlast time, and to guard mortal remains for immortality. Hence the use of thy, rather than the, because such structures become the property of time after the original builders are long since dead. Contemporary usage allowed the description of steeples and towers as pyramids. (See OED 3. 1610 I Camden’s Brit. (1637) 585 [Lichfield Cathedral Church] doth mount on high with three pyramids or spires of stone). A more direct contemporary reference seems to be suggested in built up with newer might. KDJ suggests that it could refer to the towers built as part of the pageantry for James I coronation procession of 1603-4. In the Strand ‘a vast rainbow was supported “by two magnificent Pyramid’s, of 70. foot in height” ‘. (KDJ p.26. The details are from Ben Jonson’s collected works). This seems very probable. Until recently there was a tendency not to allow into the sonnets anything that might be of a comparatively later date (i.e. post 1600). The situation has changed somewhat over the last 20 years, and there is more of a willingness to admit that the maturity and sophistication shown by many of them suggests a much later date of composition than was originally thought possible. (See introductory note above).
3. To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;nothing novel, nothing strange – nothing may be taken as adverbial, i.e. ‘in no way novel or strange’, or as a noun, ‘they are not new or strange things (because there is nothing new under the sun)’. Compare Sonnet 59:
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child!4. They are but dressings of a former sight.dressings = dressings up, disguises, new clothes on an old structure.
a former sight = something seen before, something already known. Perhaps with a pun on site, which was in use in Shakespeare’s day. OED site.n(2).2.a. gives examples from 1578 and 1600, the latter being: “Anniball….rode to the gate Capena, for to view the site of the cittie”. The word site is not found in Shakespeare.5. Our dates are brief, and therefore we admireOur dates are brief – probably a biblical or classical echo. Pindar wrote, ‘the shadow of a dream is man’, and there is a Latin hymn Hic breve vivitur. But the theme is common in the bible, in Ecclesiastes for example, and in many classical authors, especially in Horace.
our dates = our life span; the dates that mark significant events in our lives.
admire = marvel at, wonder at.6. What thou dost foist upon us that is old;foist upon us = palm off upon us. The word is originally descriptive of cheating at cards. Its use here suggests that the writer has a low opinion of Time and all his trickery, and will continue with his open defiance.7. And rather make them born to our desirethem = the old things you have foisted upon us in the shape of new ones.
born to our desire = viewed as if they were our own new born creations (rather than the hackneyed repetition of old sights). There is possibly a pun on bourn, meaning border or limit, as in
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns Ham.III.1.79-80.
The implication would be that they were things satisfying the extremes of our desires.8. Than think that we before have heard them told.before have heard them told = have heard earlier descriptions of them, have heard them reckoned up. This quatrain (5-8)claims that many of the things which we see we regard as totally new creations, due to ourselves alone, because of our addiction to novelty and self-flattery, when in fact they are mere repetitions of objects which existed long ago.9. Thy registers and thee I both defy,Thy registers – equivalent to thy records in line 11.10. Not wondering at the present nor the past,I.e ‘I am not unduly dazzled by events of the present, or by those of the past’. Or, in accordance with the defiance expressed in the previous line, ‘I refuse to be in awe of the present or the past’.11. For thy records and what we see doth lie,thy records = the written records of history, history itself. thy refers to Time. The word record is used four times in the sonnets, (see below), always in connection with some quasi-historical documentation. Note that we still have a Public Records Office in the UK, which stores historical documents. The word in this sonnet seems to be accented on the final syllable. Compare:
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory. 55
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book, 59
Till each to razed oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be miss’d. 122
Perhaps the most significant fact is that the word links this sonnet to the previous one.
doth – strictly speaking a singular verb, but apparently used as a plural on occasions.12. Made more or less by thy continual haste.‘The continuously fleeting events of our existence are emphasised or diminished in importance because of your (time’s) irrational haste.13. This I do vow and this shall ever be;This I do vow = I take this vow that etc. The substance of the vow is stated in the following line, but it could initially be taken as a reinforcement of the poet’s defiance of time, first given in line 1, and then more forcibly stated in line 9.14. I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.thy scythe – the frequent implement associated with Time, or Death. See the wood cut illustration opposite. Time mercilessly cuts down all things, just as the mower cuts down the blades of grass to make hay in the spring and summer time. Such were the commonplace images of Shakespeare’s day, now somewhat rare, since death has been so much sanitized in the Western world by hospitals and medical practice. It is quite difficult for us in the 21st century to think ourselves back to a time when death was familiar and omnipresent. Average life expectancy was about 35 and every year was potentially a plague year, and every illness potentially fatal. See also the illustration above from a Gothic tapestry which depicts a bishop with death holding his hand.
and thee = and you yourself, Time. Time as the agent may to a certain extent be sequestered from his implements. However there is also a slightly uneasy reference to the youth himself – ‘I will be true despite your faithlessness (for I can show what truth in love really should mean)’.