When I consider every thing that growes
Holds in perfection but a little moment.
That this huge stage presenteth nought but showes
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheared and checkt even by the selfe-same skie:
Vaunt in their youthfull sap, at height decrease,
And were their brave state out of memory.
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wastfull 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.
This sonnet rehearses a fundamental truth that preoccupied Shakespeare and animated his Sonnets: that while nothing is constant in nature but change, human beings continue to quest for the abiding and eternal, not in the abstract immortality of religion, but in the very processes of change and decay that seem to threaten all life with assured destruction. Acknowledging the law of ‘variation’, the poet notwithstanding seeks, in love and in language, the point of fixity that gives definition and meaning to life. This project runs the risk of mere repetition, a nostalgic adherence to a vanishing convention. But poetry, like science, can temporarily stabilise the constantly collapsing and mutating energies of the universe into an evanescent but beautiful coherence.
‘For as the Sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told. (Sonnet 76)’
Shakespeare was thinking quite simply here of the sun’s daily recession and return, the apparently eternal alternation of sunrise and sunset. In the light of modern astrophysics this figure seems extraordinarily prescient. The immense process of nuclear fission that powers the sun depends absolutely on ‘variation’ and the continual production of ‘compounds strange’. The atomic structure of the sun is in a constant state of mutability, and yet its structure remains constant, as it produces new energy and converts it to mass: it is indeed at every moment ‘new’ and ‘old’. Shakespeare’s own love poetry shares the same paradoxical combination of rest and inconstancy, fixity and change. It seems to keep saying the same thing, but can only do so by employing new combinations of words and music.
How, then, to retain identity and meaning in an environment of continual and inexorable change, where the only choices seem to be: surrender to ‘variation’; or just keep on ‘telling what is told’? Here mutability is viewed elegiacally as a continual process of loss. The world we love is growing and dying, our place in it no more than an ‘inconstant stay.’ As in many of the Sonnets, reflections on mutability focus with unusual force an image of changeless beauty, always about to change. In love with the lover, but in war with Time, the poet will preserve beauty, not by trying to hold on to it, but by ‘engrafting’ it into a new synergy. In doing so, he has both accepted the destruction of the loved object, and affirmed its potentiality for creative development. Human life is both ‘cheared’ and ‘check’t’, both stimulated and inhibited, by the same restlessly-mutating energies. The DNA blueprint of beauty will survive into a new efflorescence, but only when it is synergised with something other in a new combination of matter and spirit. Change and permanence, as Gerard Manley Hopkins insisted, are one; and many:
‘Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash …
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.’ (Hopkins in Gardner, ed., p. 66).