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.
Having regained his equilibrium once more, after some insane attacks of jealousy, the poet devotes himself again to the question of the youth’s mortality and the ravages of time against all things beautiful. What, he wonders, may be attempted as a means of holding Time’s swift foot back and restraining his despoliation of beauty?
That is the theme of this and the next two sonnets. Here and in 65 the hope is expressed that the black lines of this verse will provide a form of immortality. In the intervening sonnet, 64, nothing is suggested as a palliative, and the only remedy is to weep for what one is destined soon to lose.
It is worth noting the personal element in these three sonnets. Time is not only the universal arch-destroyer, but, what seems even more heinous, he will cut away my sweet love’s beauty, my lover’s life, he will come and take my love away, he will snatch away Time’s best jewel (i.e. my beloved) and if my love shall still shine bright despite all this destruction, it will only be through some miracle yet unknown. Each of the three sonnets passes from the universality of wasteful Time’s depravity, which attacks and crushes individuals, wrecks cities, eats up the land, consumes brass and eternal monuments, destroys the flowers of the summer as well as gates of steel and the stoutest rocks, and then turns its attention to my sweet love’s beauty, my love, and Time’s best jewel. So all things that are mortal fade and soon are no more to be seen. What is the solution? To what must one turn to avoid this destruction and loss? Is it to the immortality of verse? Or should one simply weep and acknowledge that everything which we possess is as a death which continues to weep but must dissipate itself eventually into the great sea of mortality?
This sonnet shares the same opening words as sonnet 49. The numbers of the two are important, as they are climacteric numbers, and were for the Elizabethans crucial years in a person’s life. The astrologers were deeply concerned for Elizabeth’s welfare in her 63rd year and foretold numerous disasters. She died in her next climacteric year at the age of 70. (See the notes to sonnet 81 for a fuller discussion).
The 1609 Quarto Version
AGainſt my loue ſhall be as I am now
With times iniurious hand chruſht and ore-worne,
When houres haue dreind his blood and fild his brow
With lines and wrincles,when his youthfull morne
Hath trauaild on to Ages ſteepie night,
And all thoſe beauties whereof now he’s King
Are vaniſhing,or vaniſht out of ſight,
Stealing away the treaſure of his Spring.
For ſuch a time do I now fortifie
Againſt confounding Ages cruell knife,
That he ſhall neuer cut from memory
My ſweet loues beauty,though my louers life.
His beautie ſhall in theſe blacke lines be ſeene,
And they ſhall liue , and he in them ſtill greene.
1. Against my love shall be as I am now,Against = in preparation for (the time when)2. With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’erworn;Time’s injurious hand – Time is personified once again as the reckless destroyer of all things. Of the 126 sonnets to the youth, time as the invidious tyrant or fickle cheat appears in 17. For the record, the sonnets in which Time is mentioned in a pejorative context are 5, 12, 15, 16, 19, 22, 55, 60, 63, 64, 65, 77, 100, 115, 116, 123, 126. The word does not occur at all in the sonnets to the dark lady.
crushed and o’erworn – the poet perceives himself, having looked in his glass in the previous sonnet, as one who is more than past his prime. It is worth mentioning that, if the sonnets were written prior to 1600, Shakespeare would have been 36 at the most. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged that the ageing process was more rapid in Elizabethan England than it is today, owing to poverty of diet , poor housing and primitive medicine. A thirty year old man could therefore consider himself well advanced towards old age. In addition it was the necessity of convention that the addressee of a love sonnet would be more beautiful and youthful in comparison to all earthly things. Therefore those who admired were always, by reflection, crushed and o’erworn.
o’erworn = worn out.3. When hours have drained his blood and filled his browdrain’d his blood = emptied him of blood. It was thought that, as one aged, the blood became thinner, colder, and that there was less of it. The final act of Time and Death was to empty the body of blood completely. fill’d his brow – since the Q spelling is fil’d there could be a reference to the use of a file. The lining of the forehead by Time with wrinkles was for poets the typical act of desecration of beauty which symbolised his (Time’s) destructive rage against human achievement.4. With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful mornThe movement from youthful morn to age’s steepy night is very swift, without any intermediate steps. Once started on the downward slope there is no stopping. The speed of the decline is repeated in lines 6-7, where the immortal beauties of youth flash once before one’s eyes and then vanish. The repeated word vanish (line 7) gives the impression of a flickering fire, which flickers briefly and is gone.5. Hath travelled on to age’s steepy night;travelled – travail and travel were the same word in Shakespearian times. See 27, 34, 50. (See Q’s spelling). Hence ‘moved wearily along on its journey’.
age’s steepy night – the steep decline of age into night, darkness and lifelessness. The word steepy is not a neologism, and is recorded by OED before Shakespeare’s usage of it. It seems to be synonymous with steep. There could be a connection with steeping objects in fluids so that they become flavoured or imbued with the liquid (in this case with night).6. And all those beauties whereof now he’s kingwherof now he’s king = over which he now reigns. The particular aspects or characteristics of beauty which the youth possessed were in a sense under his power, as if he were the ruler of them all. But like all earthly things power is illusory, and in the next line they vanish almost as soon as they make their appearance.7. Are vanishing, or vanished out of sight,vanishing (ed) – the repetition of the word makes the process more consciously visual. As one looks, the beauties so much vaunted, disappear before one’s gaze.8. Stealing away the treasure of his spring;Stealing away – has the transitive meaning of (Time) robbing the youth of all his treasures (his beauty), and the intransitive sense of to steal away, in which the beauty of the youth creeps away imperceptibly, furtively disappears, before anyone has noticed its absence. In the second sense the treasure of his spring would be in appostion to all those beauties or his youthful morn, or both.9. For such a time do I now fortifyfortify = take up a defensive position by building fortifications. The fortifications become the black lines of l.13. The word is also used in Sonn 16:
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
But the fortifications seem woefully inadequate in both cases.10. Against confounding age’s cruel knife,
confounding = destroying. See Sonn 60, line 8, note. Age and Time were comparable, interchangeable destroyers, armed as often with knives as with scythes. Sonn. 100 lists both weapons:
Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
So thou prevent’st his scythe and crooked knife. 100.13-1411. That he shall never cut from memoryhe = age, time.12. My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life: The use of my sweetlove’s beauty and my lover’s life has proved difficult for commentators who are not too keen on open admissions of love between men. It is clear that the understanding of the terms love, or lover, differed from that of modern times, and there are instances in the plays where men address each other or refer to each other in such terms without any emotive content. But as so often in writing, it is the context which determines what the words mean. Here, with the sonnet devoted to the means by which something precious might be preserved, and so much emphasis being placed on the admired beauty of the youth, there is no doubt that love and lover mean approximately what they do in modern English, although lover has the more general sense of one who is loved, without the unavoidable modern overtones of one with whom one has had sex. There is no doubt that my love and my lover are meant to carry the full range of emotional overtones which any deep love for another person brings with it. In John Lyly’s Euphues : The Anatomy of Wit, published in 1578, Euphues takes as his special friend Philautus, and the two declared their love for each other. They used not only one board, (table) but one bed, one book (if so be it they thought not one too many). Their friendship augmented every day, insomuch that the one could not refrain the company of the other for one minute. Lyly. p.19, Leah Scragg ed.
See commentaries on Sonnet 20 and the extended commentary on Sonnet 13.13. His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,Blackness and beauty seem to be opposites. Partly it is the blackness of night and oblivion, set against the brightness of his youthful morn. Partly it may be that
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name; 127.
The blackness of course in this case is that of ink, which here manages to preserve greeness and vitality, against all the odds.14. And they shall live, and he in them still green.And they shall live – the lines of verse shall continue to live (when all else is dead). he in them still green – he (my love) shall always be flourishing in them with youth and vitality.