Sonnet 60 Summary
The speaker begins by comparing the minutes experienced by a human during his or her lifetime to the waves of the sea. Each one follows immediately after the one that goes before it, but they all are headed in one direction: the shore.
Then the speaker thinks of a different parallel for human life—the sun. The sun rises in the east, full of light. Then, it slowly makes its way up the sky to its position at high noon. But then, out of nowhere, "eclipses" come and blot it out. The speaker ends this second section by talking about how destructive time is. You know, because it kills us and all.
The third section of the poem focuses in detail on time, who gets personified as a destructive force laying everything to waste, Attila the Hun-style. And finally, the couplet of the sonnet—its last two lines—tries to turn back the tide (so to speak) against time a little bit. How? By reminding us that at the very least, this poem will last, and continue praising "thy worth" (whose worth? We'll find out) through the centuries.
Up to this point in the poem, we haven't been given any indication that the speaker is speaking to anyone in particular. The last line of the poem thus surprises us by revealing that everything we've heard up to this point is actually part of a love poem. And not just any love poem, either. Shakespeare was right—Sonnet 60 is one for the ages.
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.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
- Line 5 begins the second quatrain of Shakespeare's sonnet.
- He starts off the line by referring to "Nativity." As in, the scene of Christ's birth? Well, not quite. In fact, Shakespeare is actually using the literal meaning of this fairly abstract, religious term. He's just talking about a baby.
- So, why didn't he just put it that way? We think he probably chose the more abstract word as a way of generalizing—of saying, "You know what? What I'm talking about here literally happens to everybody."
- Fine. So what's this universal baby of sorts doing? Actually, we don't know. All we know is where the baby is—in a "main of light." Or, we sort of know—because the way Shakespeare talks about it is actually kind of weird.
- What's a main of light? The main problem here (ba-dum ching!) is the meaning of the word "main." Here, it's being used in an old-fashioned sense. According to this meaning, main means the sea. You may have heard this meaning before in movies about pirates, where they talk about the "Spanish main."
- This clears things up a bit, but not completely, since it's pretty clear that "main of light" is something of a metaphor. What Shakespeare is most obviously getting at is the idea of a really big amount of light—a sea of light, to be precise.
- But wait. There's more. As critic Stephen Booth points out, the phrase "main of light" also has an effect on the way we read the word "Nativity" at the beginning of the line. That's because the ocean imagery makes us think of that birth as the (metaphorical) birth of the sun as it rises out of the waters of the horizon. Beautiful, right? It really looks like a "main of light."
- Keep this idea of the sun in mind as we continue on to the remaining lines in Quatrain 2, where this metaphor becomes a full-fledged conceit. As you can see, most of them can also be interpreted as metaphors based on the sun's progress through the sky.
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
- But enough blabbing about Line 5. Let's see what Mr. Fancy-Pants "Nativity" actually does.
- Well, the first thing he does is grow up—this is what Shakespeare means by the highly metaphorical phrase "[Nativity] crawls to maturity."
- In a way, you can think about the imagery in this line as being like one of those old "ascent of man" illustrations. Except, of course, that Shakespeare's diagram would begin with a baby, not an ape… and it wouldn't end with a spaceman… you get the idea.
- Okay, so far we've only dealt with the first three words of the line. What about the rest? First on the agenda: "wherewith." What the heck does "wherewith" mean?
- Nothing too fancy, actually. "Wherewith" just means with which—referring to maturity, of course. So the line as a whole basically means, "[Nativity] crawls to maturity, with which, being crowned…" or, if you want to simplify it even further, "[Nativity] crawls to maturity; and, when it is crowned with that…" and so on. Notice that neither of these is a complete sentence, which means the line is enjambed. To figure out everything that happens, we're going to have to wait until the next line(s).
- There are some other ideas in play here, too. For one thing, it seems like this speaker is sure that maturity is a good thing—as you can tell from the use of the word "crowned." That means that Line 6 is describing the process to adulthood as one to bigger and better things.
- Because of the hints of sun imagery in Line 5, it makes sense to think of Line 6 as continuing this imagery. So try imagining the process of "crawling to maturity" as paralleling how the sun climbs up to the highest point of the sky—its point at noon.
- Does talking about this imagery give you any sense of where the poem might be going next? Think about it: when you're at the top, what's the only direction you can go?
Crookèd eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
- If you answered down to the question we asked at the end of our discussion of Line 6, you are correct, sir! Or ma'am.
- Line 7 matches up with the sun imagery we've been tracking throughout the second quatrain. When the sun reaches its highest point in the sky—its point at noon—it has nowhere else to go other than down the other side of the sky. When the sun eventually sets in the west, this brings on night.
- But wait—this isn't the route Shakespeare takes with his sun imagery at all. That rising-in-morning, declining-in-evening stuff is just too simple for Big Willy.
- Instead, he has to go and really lay it on thick. The sun in this poem doesn't just set, it gets eclipsed. And not just by one eclipse, but by eclipses. And not just by eclipses, but by crooked eclipses—i.e., especially distorted and bad ones. Yikes. This sun is not in good shape.
- What could possibly be next? Let's turn to Line 8 to find out.
And time that gave doth now his gift confound.
- It's hard to get a more final statement of time's destructive power than this line. Just listen to the completely regular, thumping, ominous beat of the iambic pentameter here: And time that gave doth now his gift confound. Like a heart beating furiously away, the rhythm alone gives you a powerful sense of the destructive power of time—even before you know what all the words mean.
- As for those words? The only real tricky one, we think, is "confound." The meaning of the word in this context is pretty simple: according to critic Steven Booth, it means "'destroy,' 'demolish,' and, in military contexts, 'defeat'" (source).
- This line might also be a sneaky allusion to the Book of Job in the Bible, which says, "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."
- The basic idea of this line (and of this entire second quatrain) is that time, who started out as the good guy—the one who enabled Line 5's "Nativity" to be "crowned" with "maturity" in Line 6—turns out to be the bad guy. Time destroys what he makes.
- Any guesses about who's going to take center stage in quatrain 3?
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
- Quatrain 3 is all about focusing our attention on big bad Mr. Time and showing just what a terrible dude he is.
- Just look what he does: he "doth transfix the flourish set on youth." Wait… what?
- The word "transfix" has a pretty straightforward meaning—to pierce or bore through something. As for "flourish," it does have a wider range of meanings, but most of them are in the general ballpark of blooming, blossoming, and, well, you get the idea.
- The problem is what happens when you put them together. What do you get then?
- Hard to say, but it definitely sounds bad. The basic idea? Time destroys youth's glory, beauty, whatever. Time pierces right through all the nice stuff and ruins…absolutely everything.
- Another important thing to notice in Line 9 is how it starts to introduce imagery from the natural world of growth and decay. It happens pretty subtly here—in the one word "flourish"—but nature (and also agricultural) imagery will continue to pop up so keep a weather eye out for leafy greens.
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
- If the imagery of Line 9 was a little hard to pin down, the imagery in Line 10 couldn't be clearer.
- The only word you might not know here is "delve," meaning dig. Usually, we use the word "delve" to mean especially serious or deep digging. You can kind of get a sense from this just from the way the word sounds—with those drawn-out "l" and "v" sounds. (Say it out loud to yourself—see what we mean?)
- Once you get past that, though, the imagery here is pretty spectacular. You've probably learned the concept of parallel lines in math class, but chances are you learned a pretty abstract definition like "two straight lines that never touch." Shakespeare's genius is to take that abstract word and use it as a metaphor for something concrete, something you could "delve" or "dig."
- Any guesses what he's talking about? That's right: the trenches cut in a field by a plow or harrow, which are always parallel.
- But wait—these parallels aren't being dug in a field… they're being dug in "beauty's brow." What's the deal?
- Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we've got ourselves here a good old-fashioned case of metaphor. Without explicitly telling you that he's making a comparison, the way this poetic line is structured makes you see a parallel (oh, we're so clever with the puns) between a field and somebody's forehead.
- So, what are the parallels in a forehead? The lines and wrinkles created by old age, a.k.a. by time—who, as you may remember from Line 9, is the one doing the delving.
- Cool. So Shakespeare is saying that time destroys beauty by carving wrinkles into people's foreheads. That may not sound so nice… but it's about to get worse. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
- According to our speaker, time destroys—make that devours—the best things ("rarities") in nature. That's definitely a lot more intense than the wrinkles on the forehead we learned about in Line 10.
- Literally translated, the idea here is that time "feeds on," (or consumes, destroys" or whatever synonym you feel like sticking in) the most rare and valuable things in nature's reality, or "truth." So we're continuing with the whole all-things-green motif that was set up by the agricultural imagery of Line 10.
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
- Well, it definitely looks like the speaker has reason to be agitated. This perhaps the most disturbing image in Shakespeare's entire poem.
- Did it occur to you, back in Line 10, that all that imagery of plowing and harrowing (i.e. "delv[ing] parallels") could be read in a more hopeful way? After all, when people go out with their tractors (or, in Shakespeare's day, oxen or draft horses), they aren't just tearing up their fields for the sake of destruction. No—they're doing it to put seeds in the ground so that new life can come up.
- In Line 12, however, it looks like the speaker of Shakespeare's poem knew you were thinking that—and decided that that was just too much hopefulness.
- Sure, he tells us, new life does come up like wheat out of the ground, but then time just comes along and cuts it down with his scythe.
- What makes this line especially disturbing is how universal it is. According to the speaker, there is literally "nothing" that will escape the destruction of time.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
- And yet! And yet! What possible reason could the speaker of this poem have to be saying the words "And yet"? Didn't he just tell us that time will destroy absolutely everything? Why is he now telling us that his "verse" (i.e., his poetry, maybe this poem) will live on?
- Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that. Notice that he isn't saying that his poetry will last for all time, just that it will last into future "times." This could be days, weeks, months, years, centuries (and it has lasted for all of those durations—we're still reading it today), but not forever.
- Also, note that he isn't 100 percent certain that this will happen—he says that his verse will stand "in hope," i.e. full of hope that this could come to pass, but not certainty that it will.
- Once you see all these qualifications, all these ways in which the speaker is showing how uncertain he is, it just becomes all the more impressive when he ends the line with that defiant word "stand." It's almost as if he's personifying his own poetry, giving it strength and willpower.
- It's also worth noting that this is the first time personal language enters the poem. The speaker is no longer using the universal "our." He's saying "my verse."
- Mine, all mine. This is in keeping with the sonnet form, in which the turn, or volta should come around the final couplet—that is, if it's a Shakespearean sonnet you're writing.
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
- The speaker says that his verse, for all the years that it stands, is going to be "praising thy worth," in spite of the "cruel hand" of time.
- Sounds pretty good. But wait a moment. Do you notice anything a little bit strange here… like, whose worth? That "thy" just kind of came out of nowhere.
- Who the heck is the speaker talking to?
- Actually, we don't know specifically, though remembering that Sonnet 60 is only one poem in a longer, 154 poem sequence can clear things up a bit. Most scholars think that Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to a young man, while Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a woman. This would put Sonnet 60 in the young man category.
- Regardless of who is being addressed, however, one thing is clear. Sonnet 60, no matter what it may have seemed up to this point, is actually a love poem.
- We just don't happen to know that until Line 14, and we only learn it from one word, the pronoun "thy."
- Does this new information change the way you look at the poem up to this point? How so?