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Shakespeare Sonnet 22: "My glass shall not persuade me I am old"

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains essential in my poetry tool kit. Masterfully crafted, they dramatize love, beauty, and truth.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 22: "My glass shall not persuade me I am old"

From the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, this sonnet 22, "My glass shall not persuade me I am old," belongs to the "Muse Sonnet" thematic group or the Writer sonnets, which comprises the largest section in the 154 poem sequence. The first thematic section includes the first 17 sonnets. The second thematic section includes 18-126, or 109 sonnets. The final section, the "Dark Lady" theme includes 127-154 or 28 poems.

It remains completely appropriate that a writer such as the one experienced in the Shakespeare canon would be so absorbed in his own writing process as this middle section of 109 sonnets attests. Therefore, it is unsurprising that he demonstrates more interest with more sonnets in his composing muse than in the themes of the other two sections. Thus, the speaker in Sonnet 22 is asserting that despite the aging and eventual death of his physical body, his talent for composing lovely poems will eternally command his love, and the sonnets will inspire future generations.

Sonnet 22: "My glass shall not persuade me I am old"

My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then, be elder than thou art?
O! therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav’st me thine, not to give back again.

Reading of Sonnet 22

Commentary

The speaker in Sonnet 22 asserts that despite his physical aging and death, his talent for creating poems will eternally retain his love, inspiring future generations. Although such musings may seem hubristic at first blush, to readers, commentarians, and critics of literature five centuries later, such a self-evaluation seems to be right on target.

First Quatrain: Maintaining His Inner Youth

My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.

In the first quatrain, the speaker broaches the issue of aging. He asserts that when he looks into his mirror, he will not believe that he is old as long as youth itself and his writing talent/poems have not aged. Of course, youth itself will not have aged, and it makes sense that his poems will not age because of the cosmic subject matter he is engaging.

The speaker’s sonnets will sit eternally on the page ever speaking in the speaker’s voice. However, if the speaker finds that his poems are aging with "time’s furrows," he shall expect his own life will atone for his own death. His life can accomplish such atonement only through his creative writing, his poetry—his sonnets. His focus will remain on his desired goal of ever improving and polishing his talent in producing pleasing retainers for his enlightened thinking.

Second Quatrain: Beauty from the Heart

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then, be elder than thou art?

The speaker asserts that the beauty that decorates his poems is the same as the beauty that grows in the speaker’s heart. The same beauty and life that live in the poetry’s heart also live in the speaker’s heart; they are one and the same, so one cannot be older than the other. The speaker, even though he will eventually appear in the mirror to reflect a withered brow and graying hair, will still retain his youth because of his ability to understand the ageless soul nature of his own being and that of his poetry.

That his poetry will retain a vibrancy and relevancy remains foremost to this speaker, as he contemplates, muses upon, and then creates each little drama. His creative force will keep him inline on his true path to self-awareness and progressing to his next level of achievement. This speaker’s unflagging ability to remain focused on his goal will continue to spark his creative juices which will continue to flow in the proper direction—ever upward.

Third Quatrain: Addressing Love

O! therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.

In the third quatrain, the speaker addresses "love," personifying his belovèd writing and asking it to guard itself against the danger of sinking into mediocrity because he will also take this same precaution. He will guard his talent the same way a "tender nurse [protects] her babe from faring ill." He, therefore, can make such seemingly obvious promises because he and his works are one, just as he and his heart’s love are one and the same. The drama the speaker creates brings out into the light of day the thoughts and feelings that usually run beneath the surface like an underground river.

The unity, with which this speaker offers his creations, keeps his ideas and feelings in check; his emotions are not ever allowed to spew forth mere squishy, nauseating effusions. Amateurish fraudsters and poetasters are blinded by their own emotions to the point that they lose the mental capacity to limit and contain their fly-by-night word salads. This speaker retains evermore strengthening abilities to marshal courage and fortitude as well as sweetness and compassion.

The Couplet: Addressing His Sonnet

Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav’st me thine, not to give back again.

In the couplet, the speaker addresses his sonnet and asks it not to think merely because this speaker/poet will die that it will also die. The speaker received the gift from his Divine Creator and that gift became his writing talent, which he has retained for all eternity; therefore, the speaker’s physical death cannot result in his spiritual death, and he is leaving his love easily received by future generations in his sonnets and other writings.

That this speaker is prescient in grasping the importance of his ability to transcend time remains one of his most endearing qualities. As readers five centuries after he wrote delve into the deep-thinking mind of this poet through his sonnet creations, they understand the unity of soul awareness, and they even get of glimpse of the unifying nature of art. The supremely talented artist will always be one of the great arbiters of culture, and his works will remain a blessing upon the citizens who take the time and put forth the effort to appreciate them.

Shakespeare Identified Lecture, Mike A'Dair And William J. Ray

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes