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Sample 6

Extract from Part II of Shakespeare: a Hidden Life Sung in a Hidden Song

The humour and wit continue, though these are not immediately obvious to a modern reader. Shakespeare picks up the concluding thought of the preceding sonnet, and turns it into his favourite fall-back theme of poetic immortality, all while apparently depicting himself as old and decrepit.

     Shakespeare had surely lived a stressful life since his marriage at age eighteen. There was a family to support, while he struggled to carve out a career in a precarious profession, away from home in plague-ridden times. No doubt this stress would have left its marks, even on a man only in his late twenties. And, set against the fresh-faced, beardless young earl, these signs of life's experience must have appeared twice as evident. However, none of this quite explains the extremity of the image evoked, and we are left wondering at the latter.

     The answer lies in the poet's sense of humour and the language of his time. In Shakespeare's speech, the “hours” of line 3 sounded exactly like “whores” (each probably rhyming approximately with “grower” or the “o'er” of line 2).1 The word “blood”, in context, was a synonym of “semen” (see commentary at Sonnet 11). With this background, lines 2 and 3 take on a very different connotation! The joke is revisited in line 8, with its secondary image of a commandeering, or sparseness, of ejaculate.

     In the same vein, lines 4 & 5 might be rendered: When his youthful vigour has toiled away into that dark steeping place of old hags.


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 travailed 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.


Against that time my love is as am I,

Whose hours of grind have racked and who's sore-worn,

When tart experience has sucked him dry

And made him wrinkle; when his youthful morn

Has toiled unto the dark depths of the old,

And all those beauties of which now he’s king

Are vanishing or not there to behold,

All stealing off the lush spurts of his spring:

Against such time do I now make insurance

And fortify against Time’s scathing knife,

So he’ll not cut from memory’s endurance

My sweet love’s beauty, though he takes his life.

His beauty shall in these black lines be seen

And they shall live, and in them he’ll stay green.

1 See Shakespeare's Pronunciation (p 59). This homonymic pun is also used in As You Like It (II, vii, 26-8) and The Comedy of Errors (IV, ii, 59-60).