Study Guide

Sonnet 60 Analysis

By William Shakespeare

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Technically speaking, Shakespeare's "Sonnet 60" doesn't have a title; we just know it by its numbered position in a series. As for the title of the book it comes from, it's somewhat unusual as well. The title page of the original edition says nothing more than SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. In other words, it tells you the poetic form that Shakespeare was working with. It's clearly banking on the name-recognition of its author, but doesn't give anything away about the themes or content of the work. But wait a second… is it possible that the form itself can tell you something about the work's themes and content?

    Let's take an example from modern times. Let's say you were told about a form of music featuring harmonicas, fiddles, slide guitars, and performers wearing Stetson hats, cowboy boots, and rhinestones. You'd probably be willing to bet that the themes and content of the songs would have something to do with loneliness, wives leaving their husbands, ex-husbands finding solace in the bottom of a bottle, and life on the range, right?

    As it happens, a few years before Shakespeare's sonnets were published, some very famous English poets had also published books of sonnets. The most famous of these books of sonnets, Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney and the Amoretti by Sir Edmund Spenser both centered on the theme of love.

    So Shakespeare's readers, following the same logic as Shmoop did in our listening to country music, would probably have seen the title of Shakespeare's book and been able to guess (correctly) that it would be dealing with love. Of course, in this particular sonnet, the idea of love is pretty far in the background, but it is still there.

    What's in a Number?

    So much for the "Sonnet" part of the title. What about the "60"? Okay, we know, you've got to be thinking, what can we possibly learn from the fact that this particular sonnet is numbered 60? Well, maybe we can't learn a ton from this number, but we can still learn something—and something is always better than nothing, right?

    First of all, it's important to know that Shakespeare's sonnets are divided into two main sections: Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to a young man, while Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a woman, known to scholars as the "Dark Lady." Clearly, the number 60 places the sonnet we're talking about in the first series, meaning it's addressed to the young man. That said, if you actually look at the poem, there doesn't seem to be that much specific information about the gender of the person the speaker is talking to (much less anything else about the addressee). So maybe the number isn't as helpful in this area as it would be with other poems.

    But are there other areas in which it could be helpful? What about the number itself? We know the Sonnets go all the way up to 154, but even 60 is a heck of a lot of sonnets for one guy to write, if you ask us. If you think about it, the sheer number of sonnets Shakespeare wrote makes him kind of like those modern painters who returned over and over and over again to the same themes—like Monet, whose paintings of water lilies number in the hundreds (at least), or Mark Rothko, who painted hundreds and hundreds of rectangular fields of color floating in space. Like those artists, Shakespeare seems to have disciplined himself by returning obsessively, again and again, to the same artistic form, trying to find out all its secrets. Sonnet 60's complete mastery over the sonnet form shows that all this hard work definitely paid off.

  • Setting

    In one sense, Shakespeare's poem doesn't really have a setting. The speaker never tells you that he is standing in a particular place, or living at a particular time. But the speaker's mind does take us to several distinct places: first, the seashore (quatrain 1), then, a vision of the rising sun (quatrain 2), then a multifaceted description of agricultural life, combined with the destructive actions of time (quatrain 3). Because the couplet ends by talking about the "cruel hand" of time, it keeps us in the same mental space, generally speaking, as quatrain 3—or at least we think so.

  • Speaker

    The speaker of Sonnet 60 seems pretty bummed out. From the very beginning of the poem, with its imagery of the waves endlessly moving forwards to dash themselves to pieces on the shore, all the way to that last line about time's "cruel hand," this is one down-in-the-dumps dude. Line 4 conveys special bitterness, in the way it emphasizes the effort ("toil") the waves put into struggling ("do contend") to make their way forward. "Why do they bother?" the speaker seems to be asking. Now there's a doozy of a question.

    Over the course of the next two quatrains, the speaker seems to go from depressed to angry, as he talks about all the beautiful things that time destroys. And yet, it turns out that the speaker also has hidden reserves of strength—as the couplet reveals. In these final lines, the speaker is able to turn his anger at the destructions of time into a steely determination to oppose time with his poetry—and to continue singing the praises of the person he is talking to. So it's not all bad. This guy may be the tortured-artist type, but he might not always think his glass if half-empty.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    The toughest thing in Shakespeare's Sonnet 60 is its high-octane language. Especially in quatrain 2, he mixes metaphors with more crazy energy than a competitive bartender mixes drinks. Aside from that, though, the poem is very easy to connect to. Even though we'd rather not think about death all day, there's no question that all of us have had similar thoughts to those of the speaker.

  • Calling Card

    Lots of Ideas, Tragic Outlook, Sonnet Form

    Like many of Shakespeare's sonnets—and like moments in his great tragedies as well—Sonnet 60 reveals a disillusioned, harsh view of human life, and holds out no hope of an afterlife. Sorry, Shmoopers. If you were looking for all things rosy, well Shakespeare is not your go-to guy. To be fair, we have no idea of knowing whether Shakespeare personally held these views, but this seems to be the outlook of the speaker of the poem.

    One thing we do know about Shakespeare himself, though: the guy was overflowing with ideas. Instead of letting potentially depressing topics like "Hey, we're all going to drop dead someday!" get him down, he uses these ideas to fuel new and greater creativity. You can see this creativity in the way each quatrain gives rise to an entirely new set of images: the sea in quatrain 1, the sun in quatrain 2, and agriculture in quatrain 3.

    Of course, there are lots of other ideas floating around in each quatrain. For example, human life is compared to the sun in quatrain 2, but the sun is also compared to a king who gets "crowned" and then deposed in a cosmic coup d'état (totally a thing). This type of seemingly boundless inventiveness has Big Willy written all over it.

    Finally, another major giveaway is the Shakespearean sonnet form. We talk about this in more detail in our section on "Form and Meter," so click on over there for the real rundown, and rest assured that Sonnet 60 is Shakespeare through and through.

  • Form and Meter

    Shakespearean Sonnet

    Shakespeare's Sonnet 60 is… a Shakespearean sonnet. We'll resist the urge to say duh.

    Let's start with the sonnet part. The most basic thing you need to know about the sonnet form is that it refers to a poem in 14 lines of iambic pentameter (usually). When you think about it, this is a pretty interesting length for a poem. 14 lines doesn't give the poet much room to talk about a vast range of topics, but it is long enough to talk about one or two ideas in a fair amount of detail.

    In response to these challenges, poets over the centuries have developed some traditional ways of organizing the thought-patterns within sonnets. These patterns usually correspond to a particular form of the sonnet. Because all sonnets have 14 lines (aside from some super-rare varieties), these different forms are defined by their different rhyme schemes.

    Many poems featured on Shmoop showcase the popular Italian or Petrarchan variety of sonnet, which falls into two main halves rhyming ABBAABBA CDCDCD, with rhyming wiggle room in the second half. Check out John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 7", William Wordsworth's "London, 1802", and John Milton's sonnet "On his blindness" for some top-notch explorations of this type of sonnet.

    Of course, our main man Mr. William Shakespeare wrote a type of sonnet with a different rhyme scheme. His brand of sonnet falls into four major sections, rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The first three sections are known as quatrains 1-3, and the last section is known as the couplet. Shakespeare wasn't the first to use this type of sonnet; when the Bard took his turn with the form, the aristocratic poet Sir Philip Sidney had already made it famous with his sequence Astrophil and Stella. Even though Shakespeare didn't invent this type of sonnet, he was so good at it that the form is now named after him.

    How to Make the Most of a Sonnet, Shakespeare-Style

    The Shakespearean sonnet lends itself most naturally to the poet working out a different idea in each of the three quatrains and then summing everything up in the couplet. Usually—as in Sonnet 60—the three different ideas in the quatrains are actually all variations of one central theme. In our poem, the central theme of quatrains 1-3 is the passage of time, and how everything that grows in time must die in time.

    Then, in the couplet, he mixes things up, by saying that something will, he hopes, last far into the future: his verse. As you can see from Sonnet 60, this particular type of theme-and-variations approach was the perfect stomping grounds Shakespeare's fertile imagination, with its seemingly endless ability to invent new ways of saying things.

    Keeping Time in a Poem About Time

    The meter of Shakespeare's sonnets (and much of his plays) is the single most common poetic meter in English: iambic pentameter. This term is definitely a mouthful, but it's not so hard once we break it down. Let's start with the word pentameter. The -meter part is easy: that just means some way of dividing up the words in the poetic line. As for the penta- part, that just comes from the Greek word for five. So, pentameter refers to a line that is divided into five sections, which we fancy poet-types call feet.

    As for iambic, that just means that each of those feet, is going to follow a certain rhythm, known as an iamb. An iamb is made up of two syllables: the first syllable is lightly accented and the second syllable is strongly accented, giving the rhythm daDUM. Thus, a complete poetic line of five iambs sounds like this:

    daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM.

    To see this rhythm in action, let's take a peek at a line from the poem:

    Each changing place with that which goes before. (3)

    Of course, it would be pretty boring to have every single line of your poem follow the same rhythm. So master poets like Big Willy tend to mix things up a bit, by, say, taking one of the iambs and replacing it with a trochee, its metrical opposite (DAdum). Check out line 7, for example:

    Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,

    The word crooked is no iamb, Shmoopers. No matter which way you slice it, you have to put the stress on the first syllable, which means that ol' Shakey has dropped a trochee in the first foot of his line of iambic pentameter. Nifty, no?

    Some lines go for even more complicated effects. Bearing in mind that this is just Shmoop's own personal interpretation of the rhythm of Line 1, we think the third iamb of this line is also flipped into a trochee. This gives us the following rhythm:

    Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

    In our humble opinion, this rhythm that twists back on itself and then back again is the perfect way of acting out—at the level of the language—the movement of the waves that that language is describing. But do you think this sort of subtle rhythmical effect only turns up here? Not likely. Try reading the poem to yourself a few times out loud (you could even try to memorize it). This is the only way for you to get a full sense of all the crazy things Shakespeare is doing with the rhythm of his language.

  • Sea Imagery

    The basic structure of Shakespeare's Sonnet 60 is pretty simple: each of the poem's three quatrains centers on a different set of imagery, but each set of imagery illustrates a different aspect of the poem's main theme: the passage of time. The sea is the main image for the passage of time in the first quatrain.

    What light does it shed on that theme? What's key is that the first stanza describes the sea from the perspective of somebody on shore. This makes him think of the waves as endlessly moving in one direction—toward their own destruction. Bummer, right? So how does he connect this idea to the idea of time? Well, the minutes and hours of our lives all go in one direction. In other words, we can't turn back time. We're all headed toward our ends (deaths), whether we like it or not.

    • Lines 1-2: The speaker starts off the poem by making a simile that compares time to the ocean. Notice that Shakespeare takes two whole lines to say what time is like. This kind of builds suspense as we wait to hear what Shakespeare is talking about, and also maybe gives some sense of the slow unfolding of the waves of the sea. (That's what we think, anyway.)
    • Lines 1-4: On the subject of the slow unfolding of the waves the sea, it's also pretty clear that this whole first quatrain makes use of some pretty amazing imagery to gets its point across. But Shakespeare doesn't just illustrate the way the waves are moving through imagery. He also does it through his use of language—specifically by using bad grammar for deliberate effect. The trick here centers on Line 3. When we first come to Line 3—"Each changing place with that which goes before,"—we think that it is modifying the "minutes" described in the previous line. Once we get to Line 4, however, we realize that Line 3 could also be read as modifying "all." So Line 3 mysteriously seems to be modifying two different parts of one long, weird, sentence. We think this is Shakespeare acting out the fluidity of the waves by making his language equally fluid. That's right, when it comes to grammar, Shakespeare is sometimes too smart to play by the rules.
    • Line 4: One of the other striking devices used in the first four lines of the poem is personification, which we see in his use of the words "toil" and "contend." The word "toil" is here used in the normal modern sense of "work hard." "Contend," on the other hand, is being used with its old-fashioned meaning of "struggle." When we read this line, which emphasizes the effort the waves put in to making their way towards the shore, aren't we tempted to ask, "Why bother?" The use of personification encourages us to see the implications for human life in this description. Why are people sometimes in such a rush to get through life, when death is what awaits us all? 
  • Sun Imagery

    Now that quatrain 1 has gotten us to see how time is like the sea, we get to compare it to the sun in quatrain 2. The question is, what does this new line imagery add to what we already know about the passage of time, or how does it change it? By comparing human life to the sun that gloriously rises up to be "crowned," only to be destroyed by evil eclipses, Shakespeare reveals a greatness in human life that goes beyond the mindless struggle towards death illustrated by the wave-imagery from quatrain 1, as if to say, hey, we all get it pretty good for a while. And then we croak.

    • Lines 5-8: What we're dealing with here is a conceit in which the sun stands in for human life. This is different from the simile from Lines 1-4, where the comparison was made pretty stinkin' obvious through the words "Like" (Line 1) and "so" (Line 2). But in quatrain 2, the connection between life and the sun is never exactly spelled out. Instead, the connection develops gradually, from the vague hint in the phrase "main of light" (Line 5). The metaphor remains a bit hidden in Line 6, but then comes blazing to the forefront in the imagery of the "eclipses" "fight[ing]" against the new adult's "glory." Once this imagery is in place, we can then go back to Line 6 and see how that imagery of "crawl[ing] to maturity" and being "crowned" with it could be interpreted as the sun climbing up the sky to its highest point at noon. Don't worry if this seems a bit complicated: this sonnet, and this stanza especially, is notorious as being one of the most weirdest (in terms of its language) that Shakespeare ever wrote. 
    • Lines 5-6: Okay, things are about to get a bit weirder. Our apologies if your mind gets a little bent out of whack by what we're about to say—but Shakespeare hasn't left us any choice. The weird thing here is Shakespeare's use of personification in talking about "Nativity." Doesn't "nativity" refer to human beings already? Well, yes, but it's an extremely abstract way of talking about people. So, what Shakespeare has really done is abstractify (yep, we totally made that word up) human life by referring to it generally as "Nativity," but then he takes that abstraction and re-personifies it, by making it perform various human actions, like "crawl[ing]," getting "crowned," and so on. Weird stuff. But so it goes. 
    • Line 8: Wait, haven't we heard this one before? The entire line here is a bit of a cliché, taken from the Book of Job, verse 1:21. As Stephen Booth points out on page 240 of his commentary on the sonnets, this line from Job would have been especially familiar to people in Shakespeare's day because it was used in the traditional burial service. Only instead of having God as the subject of his sentence, Shakespeare gives all that power to time. When God is the one bringing things to light and laying them to waste, the process can be interpreted as part of a divine plan. If you're a believing Christian, this whole process even has a payoff: if you are good, you will be rewarded in the afterlife, in heaven. By talking about time instead of God, Shakespeare turns his back on all that. In the view of this sonnet, the destruction of everything that exists is meaningless, and there is no reward in the afterlife. Did Shakespeare genuinely believe this? We have no way of knowing. But the way this Sonnet uses this cliché seems far from pious.
  • Agriculture Imagery

    The third quatrain of Shakespeare's poem features imagery from the world of agriculture. On the one hand, "beauty" and everything connected with it starts to be described in terms of growth and the natural world. On the other hand, this refreshing imagery only comes up in the context of learning how it is destroyed—by time who becomes personified as the farmer who plows—and thereby tears up—fields, and who eats and mows the produce of the earth. This agricultural imagery could be taken as giving a hint of rebirth, but Shakespeare doesn't emphasize that point. Instead, he emphasizes the death of everything that is ever born.

    • Lines 8-12: Throughout quatrain 3, Shakespeare uses personification in the way he describes time performing various destructive activities: he "doth transfix," he "delves," he "feeds," and "mow[s]" everything that stands. This use of language appropriate to human beings to describe an abstract entity like time makes it easier to focus attention on how negative some of time's effects can be. In quatrain 3, time is one evil dude. 
    • Lines 9-12: The personification isn't all that clear in Line 9, mainly because the language is a bit hazy, when it talks about how time "transfixes the flourish set on youth." But a definite picture emerges when we learn how time "delves" lines in people's foreheads, "feeds on" what nature produces, and "mow[s]" everything that grows. The last image especially makes time almost sound like the grim reaper, don't you think?
    • Line 10: In this line, Shakespeare uses a vivid metaphor to capture the destructive power of time. By saying that time "delves the parallels in beauty's brow," it becomes clear that he is comparing "beauty's brow" to a field, in which time is digging trenches.
  • Steaminess Rating

    G

    There's no sex in this poem to speak of—unless references to the natural processes of reproduction count. With all that agricultural imagery, there's got to be room for the birds and the bees in there somewhere.