Sonnets for Advent 4: Sonnet 7

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AdventSonnet7‘People look East’ is a good Advent cry (from Eleanor Farjeon’s carol), and here in Sonnet 7 we have ‘Lo, in the orient’, as the sun rises in the East. Sunlight shines throughout this sonnet, the ‘sacred majesty’ whose ‘golden pilgrimage’ our ‘under eyes’ can only blink at. And then at the turning-point, the volta, in line 9, the sun begins to set and our eyes ‘look another way.’ I love the way the moon is anticipated in the couplet with the sound of the word ‘noon’, which looks backwards at the same, and the way the ‘sun’ turns into a ‘son’ at the very end.

Lo, in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty,
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage.
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract, and look another way.
So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,
Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.

Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 7 read by my colleague Dr Anjna Chouhan, Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Ian Steere

    A tolling bell strikes out many hours – not just twelve. It is its tolling, its signifier of the passage of time, which is significant to the poem. A day can be any day – and probably not the seventh. The “fools of time” in Sonnet 124 are challenged with “short-numbered hours”. Again, I respectfully suggest that there are too many available associations and stretches of
    fancy for one to conclude that your selected correspondences are meaningful. And I disagree that time is absolutely central to the sonnets. In my view – justified in – the poems are primarily focused on the events and circumstances of a relationship.

  • Bruce Leyland

    Each to his own, but it seems to me that a first line “When I do count the clock that tells the time” – precisely evokes the number 12. 12 is both counted and told.

    Sonnet 60 begins “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore / So do our minutes hasten to their end” – this sonnet is all about time. I entirely agree that many sonnets concern time. Time is absolutely central to the sonnets – and 7, 12, 30, 52, 60 are the units of time.

    On Sonnet 77 – time is certainly present, but this poem seems to me to evoke the intimate act of writing poetry, and thus triumphing over time.

    Back on Sonnet 7 – this sonnet traces the arc of the day. Not just any day – a day of worship. In the Christian tradition – the seventh day.

  • Ian Steere

    Hi Bruce. I don’t think you have answered my points. How does the image of a man noticing the tolling of a bell (and thus becoming conscious of the passage of time) conjure up the number twelve? And, are there not more obvious pointers to that number in other sonnets?
    The same sort of weaknesses apply to your other examples. Take Sonnet 60. Why should the postulated organiser prefer the phrase “our minutes” over, say the “dial”, “minutes” and “time” of Sonnet 77?

  • Ian Steere

    Here is another slant on Sonnet 7, which takes account of a jocular theme of masturbation pervading these early sonnets (as exemplified in Sonnet 4 -see ).
    The final couplet of the sonnet makes a play on Elizabethan sexual euphemisms, such as “die” (carrying a secondary meaning at the time of “experiencing orgasm”). The secondary meanings of the couplet may be rendered thus:
    So you, ejaculating your essence at your climax (So thou thyself outgoing in thy noon)
    Are unnoticed in your orgasms, unless these result in a son (Unlooked-on diest unless thou gettest a son).

  • Bruce Leyland

    I agree that the sonnets are dense with meaning, and it’s all too easy to make spurious associations. Nevertheless. I think 12 is significant to Sonnet 12. I understand “tells” in line 1 means “counts” (as in a “teller”). Shakespeare plays on this frequently in the Sonnets. “Tells” then highlights the counted number – and there are 12 hours on a clock. I think the other sonnets are worth a close look too – as they seem to confirm this observation.

  • Ian Steere

    I think that there are too many available associations and stretches of fancy for one to say that the coincidences are meaningful.
    Take Sonnet 12 and the number twelve. The sonnet starts with “When I do count the clock which tells the time”. Shakespeare almost certainly had in mind the most common clock of his environment – which was a bell which tolled out the time (no face with numbers). The word “clock” comes from the Latin word for bell; the French “cloche”, meaning bell, has the same source. The sonneteer was saying, in effect: “When I can hear the bell which tolls the time”. On this basis there is no significance here to the number twelve.
    Moreover, that number can be evoked through many other sonnets not so numbered, such as 7 (with its references to noon), 46 (with its image of an inquest or jury), 104 (with its four seasons in triplicate and a dial) and any of at least ten other sonnets which refer to “hours”.

  • Bruce Leyland

    I believe Sonnet 7 may be the first in a series of sonnets that deal with units of time. Time is the central preoccupation of the Sonnets. Shakespeare seems to devise and number Sonnets 7, 12, 30, 52 and 60 according to our principal measures of time – the day (7), the hour (12), the month (30), the year (52), and the minute (60).

    I have put together a slide for each these sonnets which highlights the corresponding unit of time, here

    If correct, these observations would argue against the numbering of the sonnets being random; and therefore, also against the publication of the sonnets being pirated. Very interested to hear others’ thoughts.

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