Study Guide

Sonnet 60 Sea Imagery

By William Shakespeare

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?