Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
- The poem starts off by making a comparison—or, in literary-speak, a simile. A simile always contains two ideas: A and B. As it happens, Line 1 of the poem only tells you A; you'll just have to be in suspense until Line 2 to find out what B is. Fair enough. But what's A?
- Fortunately, Shakespeare's language isn't too complicated here. The only word that might trip you up is "make." How can you "make towards" something?
- Well, you can if by "make" what you really mean to say is "make your way." So, what Shakespeare is really talking about is how the waves "make [their way] towards the pebbled shore." Simple as that.
- Good to go? All right, let's turn to Line 2 and see what Shakespeare is comparing those waves to.
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
- Now, we get part B of the simile. A, the waves flowing towards the shore, is like B, the minutes "hasten[ing] to their end."
- What Shakespeare is getting at here is pretty straightforward. Still, it's interesting to point out that he is blending together two different ideas of the word "end," one coming from space and the other from time.
- The time meaning, which is the main one in Line 2, is the same one we use when we say that a week, day, hour, or minute has "come to an end," i.e., it's over, and the next week, day, hour, or minute has begun. No problem here.
- But, through the simile that began in Line 1, Shakespeare is actually comparing the time-meaning of "end" to the space-meaning—by saying that a minute coming to an end in time is like a wave coming to an end (i.e. hitting the shore) in space. Nifty trick.
- Of course, Shakespeare didn't invent the idea of comparing space to time—it seems like everybody is doing that all the time, and all over the place (see what we did there?)
- For some very similar imagery to what Shakespeare uses in his sonnet, check out Bob Dylan's song "Oh Sister," which has the line, "Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore." Bob Dylan is the Shakespeare of our age after all.
Each changing place with that which goes before,
- In this line, Shakespeare keeps describing the "minutes" he first mentioned in Line 3.
- But what does he mean by saying that each minute "change[s] place with that which goes before"? Maybe the best way to understand what he's talking about is if you think about the present, or now.
- There are lots of minutes in a day—1,440 to be precise. But, no matter which one of those minutes of the day it is, it's always now to the person experiencing it. So, you can kind of think of now as the one place that every minute has to pass through as it makes its way from being in the future to being in the past.
- If your head is spinning, well, so is Shmoop's. But don't worry. The gist here is that Shakespeare is referring to this cycling of the minutes through the now when he says that each minute "changes place" with the one(s) that went before it. Just imagine a never-ending line of minutes, and when you get to the front, you have to turn right back around and go to the back.
- Of course, you can also think of this line in terms of the imagery of the waves introduced in Line 1. In the context of that imagery, you can think of the now as the "pebbled shore," where each new wave that comes breaks at the same place as the one that went before it. That is to say, the each wave "change[s] place with that which went before."
- Got it? Cool. Let's move on to Line 4.
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
- Let's start with the word "sequent," shall we? As you might have guessed, this old-fashioned word is related to the word sequence. In fact, sequent is an adjective (i.e. a word that describes another word), meaning "in a sequence."
- In this case, the adjective is describing the noun "toil." And toil, of course, just means hard work. So, when Shakespeare writes "sequent toil," what he's talking about is hard work that happens in a sequence.
- But what does that mean? Fortunately, the rest of the line helps us out—once we deal with one more tricky word, that is. The word "contend" here means to struggle. Keep in mind that Shakespeare is still talking about the minutes, as well as the waves he was comparing them to back in Line 1.
- So the meaning of Line 4 is: "all of them (the minutes and the waves) struggle forwards in hard work that happens in a sequence," or, rephrased a bit more simply: "they're all going one way, and it ain't easy."
- It's pretty easy to see how this idea applies to the waves, which are constantly making their way forward to the shore, as well as to the minutes, which always go in one direction—you can't turn back time.
- But don't you think that the idea that you can't turn back time brings in another idea, too? The rest of the poem will make this much clearer, but we're guessing that you could already figure it out just from these four lines. That's right: the idea of the minutes all going one way suggests Death, the final destination for all of us. This kind of makes us think of the "pebbled shore" a little differently, doesn't it? And it also puts kind of a different spin on the word "end" at the end of Line 2, too.
- So, why did Shakespeare put so much emphasis on the idea of the hard work it takes for the minutes to go on their way, and for the waves to make it to the shore? Your guess is as good as ours, but we think he's going for something like, "Hey, minutes and waves! You guys are crazy! Why are you in such a rush? Don't you know that the final destination is death?"
- We should also point out that Shakespeare is doing some pretty cool stuff with grammar as well. You might not believe that anything having to do with grammar could be cool, but here's the deal: what Shakespeare is actually doing here is using bad grammar—for a deliberate effect.
- Let's look back at the beginning of this quatrain. Line 1 sets up a contrast, and then Line 2 fleshes it out, giving the structure "Just like A does this (Line 1), /So does B do this (Line 2)." Now, notice that Line 2 ends with a comma, so when Line 3 comes around, we all think that it's modifying B, the "minutes," telling us how each of them "chang[es] place with that which went before."
- So far so good—but then notice that Line 3 also ends with a comma. Then, when we read Line 4, it turns out that Line 3 was actually modifying the "all" of Line 4, so that you could read "Each changing place with that which goes before, / In sequent toil all forwards do contend" as a complete unit.
- Which way is correct? Is Line 3 modifying the "minutes" of Line 2, or the "all" of Line 3? Or, wait… could it be modifying… both? After all, Shakespeare is talking about some fluid stuff—waves and units of time—that's constantly flowing into and trading place with each other.
- Wouldn't it make total sense for him to try to act out this fluid, flowing idea at the level of his language, by having one clause (Line 3) refer to two different other clauses (Lines 2 and 4)?
- We sure think so—which just goes to show that there are many more important things in the world than correct grammar. Especially in poetry, that is.
- Note: some modern editors try to correct Shakespeare's punctuation by either putting a semi-colon (;) or period (.) at the end of Line 2. We think this is both wimpy and missing the point. That's why we're following the edition of Stephen Booth. Like many other modern editors, Booth wisely follows the original 1609 edition's punctuation of this line.
- And finally, before we move onto the next quatrain, let's talk form. We know from the title that we're reading a sonnet, which means we should be on the lookout for iambic pentameter and a rhyme scheme. We spot ten syllables (or so) in these lines, so we're betting the pentameter is taken care of.
- But what about the rhyme scheme? Well, "shore" rhymes with "before" and "end" rhymes with "contend," so we've got a little ABAB thing going on. So far, Shakespeare's checking all those sonnet boxes. Keep an eye out to see if he continues staying true to form.