Study Guide

Sonnet 2 Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By William Shakespeare

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Siege

Sonnet 2 opens with a metaphor that compares the way time wears away a person's face to the way an army attacks a castle. It used to be that if you were holed up in your castle, you were pretty much safe, since any army that tried to attack would get creamed when it got close to your castle walls. However, the attackers could choose to just surround your castle, close off your escape, and wait until you used up all your supplies and got hungry enough to give up. That kind of wait-and-see attack is called a siege.

  • Line 1: Here the "forty winters" give us a strong image of how cold and merciless time is, waiting like an army at a castle wall, which Shakespeare cleverly compares to the young man's forehead ("brow"). Even though the "wall" of his face is strong now, we know who is going to win this battle.
  • Line 2: Now that you have that first image in your head, Shakespeare starts to play with it a little. In the second line, he continues the extended metaphor of the siege. If that army is going to wait for forty years, they need to make themselves comfortable, so they have to dig a few trenches around the castle to protect themselves. These trenches are meant to stand for the wrinkles that come with old age, that carve themselves into our skin, which is our "beauty's field" (line 2). This is a nice bit of hyperbole (a poetic word meaning "exaggeration"). Wrinkles aren't as deep and jagged as a trench, but when you look at them closely in the mirror, and start to freak out, maybe they seem that way. One more thing: when you give human qualities to something like time, that's called personification. So, when Shakespeare compares the passing years to an army, he's personifying them. Of course, time doesn't have a personality or a brain, but in this poem it becomes a dramatic character with its own motivations.

Proud Livery

In general, "proud livery" means fancy clothes that are beautiful and showy. It has a more specific meaning, too. The servants of a nobleman during the Renaissance would wear livery, which was a uniform that told the world who they served. So livery are clothes, but clothes that tell a story.

  • Line 3: "proud livery" (line 3) is another metaphor for the beauty of the young man. His good looks are like a beautiful costume that is admired ("gazed on") by everyone around him.
  • Line 4: Here's the other side of this extended metaphor. If a young man's face is like "proud livery" then an old man's face is like the oldest, crummiest clothes you can imagine. In Shakespeare's language, those old, worn-out looks become "a tattered weed" (line 4) that no one cares about. There's probably a bit of a double meaning here too. We get an image of a brown, worn-out plant in winter, a dead weed. At the same time, weed was a common term for a piece of clothing in Shakespeare's time. This pun is a good example of how Shakespeare can make one word do a lot of work.

Treasure

When you see people who are really good looking, do you think of them as actually owning something worth having? A pretty face isn't like money in the bank, but it is a precious possession that people work very hard to keep.

  • Line 6: In this poem, treasure is one more in a series of important metaphors for beauty. Shakespeare calls the young man's beauty "the treasure of thy lusty days," and from that point on he comes back to the idea of beauty being like money, something you can save, add up, and pass on.

Deep-Sunken Eyes

How's this for a sad, haunting image of what old age is like? The phrase "thine own deep-sunken eyes" is meant to stand for the opposite of everything that is beautiful about the young man, and to paint a scary picture of what he will become.

  • Line 7: In this moment, we can see those eyes sinking back in the old man's head until he almost looks like a skull. The speaker of the poem wants to remind us that death is always waiting for us, so there's no sense in wasting time.

All-Eating Shame

One thing Shakespeare is a master of is the intense adjective. He can take an idea that you're pretty familiar with, like shame, and tack on another word to make you understand it in a new way. Have you ever been so embarrassed about something that you wanted to curl up into a ball and disappear? That's the sort of twisting, queasy, awful feeling we're talking about here.

  • Line 8: This is kind of a fun one. We imagine "all-eating shame" being like Cookie Monster, just gobbling up everything around it. There's a little bit of personification here, since Shakespeare gives shame a human or animal quality to suggest that it is powerful and dangerous.

Sum my count

This idea of the young man summing his father's "count" takes us back to the metaphor of beauty as "treasure" in line 6. Again the big idea here is that beauty becomes a lot like money, and turns into the kind of thing you can save up and pass along to your kids.

  • Line 11: Instead of wasting his beauty by keeping it all to himself, the old man has deposited it with his son. The son can prove that his father's beauty isn't really gone, it has just been handed down to the next generation. In this way, the son evens out his father's accounts, and covers his debts to the world or (makes his "old excuse"). This language is a bit unusual, but keep in mind the main idea of this line (beauty = money), and you'll get the point.

Rebirth

This is the big payoff for the whole poem. The idea is that you can almost be born again by having a baby. When you look at your child, you see yourself, only young and healthy and beautiful again. Whether or not this is really true, it's the carrot that the speaker is holding out to try to get the young man to do what he wants.

  • Line 13: When he says "this were to be new made," the speaker is promising a kind of resurrection for the young man. When he is old, looking at his young son will take him back to the days of his youth and beauty.
  • Line 14: To underline this theme, the speaker adds an image of the warm blood of the young man contrasting with the cold blood of his father (line 14). This emphasizes the fact that the father and son are made of the same stuff – they share the same blood.