William Shakespeare – Sonnet 16

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.

This seems to take its cue from the preceding sonnet, and the two together are in the form of a continuous meditation. Here the poet takes a step backwards from the declaration of promised immortality, for he has second thoughts and his verse (his pupil pen) is found to be inadequate to represent the young man as he really is, or to give a true account of his inner and outer beauty. Therefore the boy is urged once more to give himself away, in marriage, and thus to recreate himself.

Lines 9-12 present difficulties of meaning which probably can never be fully resolved. See the commentary below.

The 1609 Quarto Version

BVt wherefore do not you a mightier waie
Make warre vppon this bloudie tirant time?
And fortifie your ſelfe in your decay
With meanes more bleſſed then my barren rime?
Now ſtand you on the top of happie houres,
And many maiden gardens yet vnſet,
With vertuous wiſh would beare your liuing flowers,
Much liker then your painted counterfeit:
So ſhould the lines of life that life repaire
Which this (Times penſel or my pupill pen )
Neither in inward worth nor outward faire
Can make you liue your ſelfe in eies of men,
  To giue away your ſelfe,keeps your ſelfe ſtill,
 And you muſt liue drawne by your owne ſweet                                                                                           ſkill,


1. But wherefore do not you a mightier waya mightier way = a way that is more efficacious than my idea of ‘engrafting you new’, in verse, as I even but now suggested. The way proposed (of warring against Time) is elaborated in what follows, 5-14. might suggests the use of military might, given further emphasis byn the continuing use of military metaphors in the next two lines.2. Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?bloody = bloodthirsty, creating bloodbaths, brutish, destructive. Tyrants were often cruel and bloody, especially those recorded in histories of the ancient world.3. And fortify your self in your decayThe imagery of warfare is continued with the idea of building fortifications.
in your decay = as you grow old4. With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?means more blessed = methods which will be potentially more successful, more fruitful than my barren rhyme, (which does not produce an actual you to replace the you who is subject to grievous mortality).5. Now stand you on the top of happy hours,You have reached the pinnacle of your perfection. happy is used both in its modern sense, and with the meaning of lucky, successful.6. And many maiden gardens, yet unset,The imagery is drawn from horticulture. The maiden gardens not yet planted or sown with flowers are unmarried girls who are potential mates for the young man. Evidently a sexual meaning is intended here also.
unset = with no seeds or plants put in them.7. With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,With virtuous wish merely emphasises the desirability of the virtuous maidens. In addition to being unstained virgins, it is as if they seek only his good, not their own, they wish virtuously to bear his children. Women were expected to play a subservient role to men. But there may also be a hidden reference to the Virgin Mary who bore the flower of Christ in her womb.
would bear you living flowers = would bear children for you.8. Much liker than your painted counterfeit:Much liker = much more like you;
than your painted counterfeit = than is a painted image of you. A painting could be seen as a counterfeit of the real thing. Painting also refers to ‘painting in verse’, as proposed in the previous sonnet. For counterfeit as ‘painting, image, see OED(n).3., and compare:
What find I here? Fair Portias counterfeit. MV.V. So should the lines of life that life repair,the lines of life – many interpretations are given of this. It is thought to refer mainly to life’s continuation, hence lineage, descent, descendants, children.
that life refers to the young man’s life;
repair – with the added sense of replacement and renewal, as in 3.3 and 10.8. Hence we paraphrase as ‘in that way your children would replace you (as you grow older and became due for repair)’.10. Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,More difficulties arise here. The main problem is that of deciding the referent of this. Does it mean ‘this verse, this sonnet, which is currently describing you’? In which case Time’s pencil and my pupil pen are a further adumbration of it (this sonnet) and qualify its scope. A pencil was a painter’s brush, such as was used in painting miniatures. Therefore the line seems to imply that the descriptive power of verse in depicting or painting the young man is achieved by Time itself painting him, or by my (the poet’s) amateur pen describing him. This hardly seems possible because Time’s pencil is not responsible for the sonnet – it is the poet’s creation. this could therefore refer to the twofold possibility, the two alternatives to repairing one’s hasting life, (time’s pencil, my pupil pen) and this is equivalent to these in modern English. In which case the over-arching meaning of 9-10 would be ‘Thus would your children replace you as you grew old, whereas the two other alternatives, Time depicting you in the stature which today you have reached, or me with my inadequate pen attempting to describe you, (would not suffice because etc.)’. Q’s punctuation seems to support this latter meaning. GBE prefers Which this time’s pencil or my pupil pen, glossing this time’s pencil as the contemporary style of painting. (GBE. p.129) and rejecting the usual assumption that this is the same Time as is referred to in line 2, where he is a bloody tyrant, rather than a painter. Thus he avoids giving Time a split personality. An appealing solution to the problem, which may finally be impossible to resolve. But perhaps we should not insist on perfect consistency when dealing with poems of this nature. As Walt Whitman said: ‘Do I contradict myself? Well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.’11. Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,inward worth = characteristics, hidden qualities;
outward fair = external appearance or beauty.12. Can make you live your self in eyes of men.Can reproduce you as you truly are to external observers (eyes of men). That is, (lines 9-12), the above methods fail to produce the desired results, for they make only a pale copy of you, without the essentials.13. To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,To give away yourself – as in marriage. An echo of the marriage service, ‘Do you give this woman etc.?’
still = forever. By giving of yourself you will be preserved against time’s decay. There is also the sexual meaning of giving semen, which creates another you. The male seed was thought to be the essential substance necessary for the creation of a new life. GBE quotes Donne’s poem The Canonisation’ GBE, NCS Son. p.129 n.13.14. And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.And consequently you will go on living (must live), and you yourself will be the artist who draws the portrait of yourself.


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