Episode 4

Sonnet 60

by William Shakespeare

 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses Sonnet 60 by William Shakespeare.

Poet

William Shakespeare

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

Sonnet 60

by William Shakespeare

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses ’gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.


Podcast transcript

This is an amazing poem about the nature of time, and as Yoda might say, if you aren’t scared the first time you hear it, ‘You will be!’.

There’s a lot going on in it, so to see what’s happening we need to look at it in slow motion. And do do that, I’m going to break it down into its constituent parts, which is very easy to do because of the form Shakespeare is using.

So remember in the last episode we had Mimi Khalvati talking about the two different types of sonnet? She read us her beautiful sonnet about eggs, which is an Italian sonnet, also known as the Petrarchan sonnet, which is divided into an octave or octet, the first eight lines, that propose an idea or introduce a topic or a point of view; followed by what’s called the turn, between lines 8 and 9, after which the argument or the perspective or the mood shifts into the sestet, the final six lines, which give us a different point of view or a different emotional tone.

But today we’re looking at an English sonnet, a version of the sonnet adapted by poets on this island so that it’s easier to write in English. It’s also known as the Shakespearean sonnet, because Shakespeare is its most famous practitioner. And Mimi described the structure of the English sonnet very memorably, saying it’s like a chest of drawers: you’ve got three quatrains, four-line stanzas, followed by a rhyming couplet of two lines. So the first three stanzas are like the three main drawers where you keep your jumpers and trousers and t-shirts and so on, and the couplet is like the little drawer at the bottom where you put your socks and underwear.

And overall, that gives a proportion of, instead of 8 to 6, of 12 to 2. So there’s a lot riding on that final couplet.

So let’s be nosy and look at each of these drawers in turn and see how Shakespeare first builds up this relentless picture of time marching on, and then ask the question of what – if anything – we can do about it.

OK here’s the first quatrain:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

It’s hard to argue with the waves as an image of time marching forward, either logically or poetically. We really see the waves breaking on the shore, and hear the poet standing next to us, like a gloomy friend, pointing out how the minutes of our lives are hastening towards their inevitable end.

And this relentless progress is heightened by the fact Shakespeare is using a very regular iambic pentameter – you know, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum – apart from the first line and a bit. The lines are what’s called end-stopped, which means that each phrase lines up neatly with the end of the line:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

So that’s one phrase, and one line.

So do our minutes hasten to their end,

One more phrase, one more line.

Each changing place with that which goes before,

Another phrase, another line, and so on. So the effect is very regular and orderly, like the movement of the waves themselves, or like a well-drilled regiment of soldiers, all marching all turning at the same moment.

OK that’s the first quatrain. And here’s what Shakespeare has put in the next drawer down in his chest of drawers:

Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses ’gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

So we have this abstract noun, ‘nativity’, making us think of a baby or a small child, crawling to maturity, but as soon as it reaches maturity then it’s becoming old and bent, and Time, that created this person and give them life, is now going to ‘confound’ its own gift, meaning ‘destroy’ it.

And the end-stopping has stopped – the phrases are no longer neatly lined up with the end of the lines, but they are spilling over from one line to another. If you listen to

Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity,

You can hear the phrase ‘nativity… crawls to maturity’ stretched out over one and a half lines, with that amazing image, ‘once in the main of light’, tucked inside it. So the neat and tidy thoughts of the first quatrain are starting to dissolve into something more slippery. And it’s almost as if Shakespeare is trying to hide that image, skipping over it so quickly that we barely notice it.

But what does he mean by ‘the main of light’? What comes into your mind’s eye as you hear it?

In 16th century English the word ‘main’ could simply mean an open expanse of space. Another meaning was ‘strength’ or ‘full power’, which I think is also present here. But given that we have just been contemplating the waves breaking against the shore, I think Shakespeare wants us to think of the open sea, as in ‘the Spanish main’. But why ‘the main of light’?

Well to me what comes to mind is looking out at the sea on a scorching hot day when the sun is shining so brightly that the sea is dazzlingly white and painful to look at, it’s almost like looking at the sun itself. And I find this such a powerful image, it suggests that in early childhood we’re somehow in touch with this huge expanse of light that is so bright and intense that it’s too much for an adult to take in. So growing up is almost like descending, in that odd phrase ‘crawls to maturity’, and losing touch with that ocean of light.

Seamus Heaney says that this image ‘marks the sonnet with Shakespeare’s extravagant genius’ (‘The Main of Light’, in Finders Keepers, Selected Prose 1971-2001, Faber & Faber), and I have to say I agree with him, it’s really magnificent and unsettling, and also quite remarkable that Shakespeare doesn’t dwell on it, or expand on it, or make it the centrepiece of the poem – the way I would, frankly, if I’d thought of it. He just tosses it casually over his shoulder as he gets on with the rest of the sonnet.

And what happens next is like the moment in a play when the villain steps onto the stage, and the audience draws in its breath because we can see at once that this is the bad guy. And as so often in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the villain is Time.

Crooked eclipses ’gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

One of the central paradoxes of the Sonnets is that Time is the one that grants the gift of life, and with it youth and beauty, but also the one that takes it away. And yes, this is a commonplace observation on the nature of life. As Job says in the King James Bible, which was published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, ‘the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’.

But Shakespeare isn’t as resigned or as pious as Job; he is furious about it. One of the odd things about Shakespeare is that he writes as if time is somehow unnatural. He does acknowledge Time as the giver, but it’s pretty grudging, and he can never quite forgive Time for what happens next; you get the sense he thinks Time is playing some kind of practical joke out of sheer malice.

And it’s no accident that Shakespeare has rhymed the word ‘crowned’ with ‘confound’; the rhyme sums up the whole bitter irony of life, that even as we are ‘crowned’ with the best that it has to offer, Time is working away to ‘confound’ us, to destroy us. And at this point something shifts in the poem: we go from quite a passive description of the progress of time as a process, to Time personified, complete with male pronouns, entering like a stage villain and taking an active role in proceedings:

Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.

Can you hear the change in the voice here? Time is now taking the whip hand and driving the action forward: he destroys the ‘flourish’, the beauty of youth, he disfigures beauty with the lines of age, and eats up all the ‘rarities’, all the precious things, of nature. And by the end of this quatrain, Time has become Death, complete with a scythe.

And, you know, it’s not surprising that there’s a big shift between lines eight and nine because if you remember Mimi talking about the Italian sonnet being divided into the octet, the first eight lines, and the sestet, the last six lines, this is where we would expect a big shift, which is called the turn of the sonnet. So even though we’ve got the chest of drawers structure, we still find the turn from the original Italian form.

And I must admit, I’ve read this poem on the page for years and years, and I always admired the those first eight lines, I thought they were absolutely magnificent. But I never really got into the sestet that much, it felt like a bit of a let down after the first part.

But when I read the sestet aloud, I really get into it. There’s really something to get your voice into here. There’s this demonic energy about Time that’s very similar to Richard III and Shakespeare’s other villains, and it’s a lot of fun to channel that by reading it out loud.

You know, the first eight lines have got some amazing, vivid images, and as poetry lovers, we love gorgeous images, don’t we? But the ideas in the second part are a lot harder to visualise. I mean, transfixing the flourish set on youth – I can’t really picture that. Delving the parallels in beauty’s brow – I can picture it, but it’s not a particularly memorable image. And then ‘feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth’ – good luck trying to visualise that!

But if you forget about imagery, and focus on the rhythm and the energy of the words then it’s a totally different experience. Which is why I really recommend you read this one out loud for yourself. It’s like taking a sports car for a test drive and feeling the power as it accelerates – go on, try it!

OK we are almost at the end, the closing couplet, the sock drawer at the bottom of the chest of drawers:

And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

I’m tempted to point out that if we read this poem out of context, which we are today, then surely at this point we’d ask who Shakespeare is talking to when he says ‘praising thy worth’. He hasn’t mentioned any ‘thee’ or ‘thou’ in the rest of the poem, it’s just been Shakespeare and the reader, so it’s a little surprising to suddenly discover someone else has been here all along.

Of course, if we read this as part of the sequence known as Shakespeare’s Sonnets, then we’re probably acclimatised to the idea that a lot of them are addressed to a fair young man, or maybe more than one – but let’s not go down that rabbit hole today.

Anyway. This is another difference between the English sonnet and the Italian sonnet, because the Italian doesn’t have this couplet. What Shakespeare typically does is to summarise the whole argument of the sonnet in these two lines, and clinch the argument with the rhyme. It’s as if the whole sonnet is compressed into the couplet. Or sometimes what he does is to reverse the momentum of the sonnet, giving us a counterpoint or a counter argument to the first twelve lines.

And what we’ve got here is the latter, because he’s spent twelve lines persuading us that Time is evil and relentless and remorseless and it’s coming to get us and there’s nothing we can do about it. And then we get ‘And yet…’

And if I can strain my sports car analogy to the limit, those two words are like the moment in a movie when the hero does a handbrake turn and swings the car round, and zooms back up the road to the rescue. And I don’t think I’m entirely overdoing the analogy, because Shakespeare is quite boldly presenting himself, the poet, as the hero, with the somewhat startling claim that poetry is here to save the day, by overcoming time and death.

But of course it’s not quite as simple as that, let alone as convincing. He says:

And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,

In Elizabethan English the phrase ‘in hope’ literally meant ‘in times to come’. But there’s obviously also a suggestion of the other sense of hope – that the speaker’s verse can give us hope. But of course, hope is not certainty: hope can be defeated, hope can be, and very often is, disappointed. And let’s face it, we know that what he’s saying is complete nonsense, because we know and he knows, that his verse is going to disappear too someday, along with everything else.

And this isn’t even the first time Shakespeare has ended a sonnet with this ridiculous argument: Sonnet 18, you know, the famous, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ one, ends with:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

But this ending is much bolder than Sonnet 60, or much more naive, depending on how you look at it, because it ends with the assertion ‘this gives life to thee’. But listen again to the end of Sonnet 60:

And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

We have this proud assertion that ‘my verse shall stand’, but the rhyme, which we should be alert to by now, is with Time’s ‘cruel hand’. Time has the last word, and ‘my verse shall stand’ sounds a bit desperate, a bit like Shakespeare’s last stand.

And yet… tempting as it is to see this as a heroic failure on Shakespeare’s part, I can’t help wondering whether he has in fact succeeded, although not quite in the way he intended.

I keep thinking about that ‘main of light’, that watery expanse of light, shining and glittering at the heart of the poem. Seamus Heaney calls this image an ‘unpredictable strike into the realm of pure being’, which is a great way of putting it, I mean, it’s almost as good as the sonnet itself.

And if I were a mystic, I’d be tempted to say Shakespeare has given us a glimpse of eternity, of a timeless dimension that makes the linear progress of time irrelevant. And he’s done this through the prism of poetry. And maybe that’s the real achievement of a great poem like this, even if it doesn’t last forever.


This poem has a special meaning for me, because it’s one of the two pieces of Shakespeare that I had to memorise and work with, on Kristin Linklater’s week-long intensive workshop on speaking Shakespearean verse. We all had to do a sonnet, and we had to do a soliloquy. So this was my sonnet.

I remember being feeling a bit out of my depth on that course. Because really, it was a course for actors. And a large part of the group was composed of professional Shakespearean actors. They were a really lovely group of people. And possibly because quite a few of them were were American, and quite a bit younger than me, they seemed to be a fair bit more extroverted than me. So as the introverted British poet, I wasn’t exactly in my comfort zone.

But that’s what I’d signed up for and Kristin cut me absolutely no slack whatsoever. She made it very clear that I was expected to put myself and my voice out there, and to be just as loud and expressive and emotive and as anyone else in that group.

And after my first few attempts at reading this sonnet, she kind of lost patience with me – I thought I was speaking it and projecting it, but it obviously wasn’t coming across. She said ‘We’re over here, Mark! You need to reach us!’ And after a few failed attempts she said ‘OK, we’re going to have to do something about this’. And she opened the door of the studio and ushered us all outside.

The Linklater Voice Centre is this amazing studio on a hillside on one of the Orkney islands. It has absolutely spectacular views of hills and islands and sea, all around it. Fortunately for me it was a gloriously sunny day. And Kristin said ‘Right Mark you’re going up to the top of the hill, and we’re all going to the bottom of the hill, and you are going to speak your sonnet so that it reaches us at the bottom, and it connects with us’.

And so, at this point I had gone from being a bit nervous and self-conscious to being absolutely terrified. I was thinking ‘What the hell am I going to do here?’ – but there was absolutely no way I wasn’t going to do it because when Kristin told you to do something then you jolly well did it.

And I kind of staggered about at the top of the hill for a few seconds. And something snapped in me and this big voice came out. And I suddenly found myself booming the sonnet out, not just down to the bottom of the hill, but I projecting it onto Hoy, the next island, off in the distance over the sea. And it felt like such a release. I was ecstatic.

And I lost all my self consciousness, which was just as well given the absurdity of standing up there on the hillside in the sunshine, booming out this 400 year old poem. It was like being in a Shakespearean version of The Sound of Music.

And then I went down to the bottom of the hill. And I saw that some people in the group were actually in tears. So not only had they heard it but they had obviously felt it.

And when I walked back into the studio, I was a different person with a different voice. Ever since that day, when I’ve recited a poem or spoken in public, I haven’t had to strain to project, it’s as though my voice naturally reaches out, there’s not much I can do to stop it and it’s easy to go with it.

And so, whenever I read this poem I think of that sunny day in Orkney. And I think of Kristin who sadly is no longer with us, as she passed away last year.

And yet… Time may have taken Kristin from us, but her work lives on via her students. Just as this poem lives on, even though Shakespeare and whoever he was writing it for were mown down by the scythe 400 years ago.

And for me the memory of declaiming it from a hilltop in the sunshine lives on. And for me and you, and all the other readers and listeners, something lives on each time we read the poem, each time we hear it.


Sonnet 60

by William Shakespeare

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses ’gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.


William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare portrait

William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright, actor and entrepreneur who was born in 1564 and died in 1616. He wrote more or less 39 plays, most of them for the company he co-founded, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as The King’s Men. He also wrote sonnets and narrative poems. In 1623 two members of The King’s Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published a collected edition of his plays; in the front of the book was a poem by Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson, who wrote, ‘He was not of an age, but for all time’. .

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