Sonnets for Advent 23: Sonnet 104

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This sonnet marks the passing of time over three years. For people wanting to turn Shakespeare’s collection into a narrative sequence, Sonnet 104 is an important point of reference (the relationship between Shakespeare and ‘the Young Man’ has now lasted three years). But again there is no mention of the sex of the addressee and the first line suggests that this sonnet is written rather from the point of view of someone young to someone older (hence the more respectful ‘you’ rather than ‘thou’ as a form of address) – not the way round in which those seeking to impose a narrative or autobiography on the Sonnets would normally read.

Time creeps imperceptibly in Sonnet 104; it is something ultimately to be feared. All beauty has motion, and will not stay the same for ever, which makes even the apparently defiant (and utterly egotistical) ‘when first your eye I eye’d’ in line 2 brittle, showy, and rather hollow. There is no explicit mention of love, but the sound of the verse in encompassing the passing of the seasons (lines 3-8) suggests that the beauty being looked upon is indeed being relished with a deep and lasting thankfulness.

Sonnet 104 is read by one of our Shakespeare Aloud actors, Sam Lesser.

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold,
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned,
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

Find out more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets via our free on-line course www.gettingtoknowshakespeare.com

Listen to the same sonnet being read by a student at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

You might like to treat yourself to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s own, exclusive edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by our Honorary President, Professor Stanley Wells C.B.E., and beautifully printed by Oxford University Press. Find out more 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
  • Bruce Leyland

    Thanks again Paul. I’m very interested in numbers in the Sonnets. On your point concerning the three years of the relationship, I wonder if “eye I ey’d” is a pun on iii – being the Roman numeral three.What do you think? I’ve not seen this observed anywhere else, but once you notice it, it does seem to make sense.

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