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Shakespeare Sonnet 64: “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d”

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 64: “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d”

Sonnet 64 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence should be paired with the following sonnet 65 because in 64 the speaker presents his fear and in 65 he shows how it is mitigated. In sonnet 64, the speaker appears to remain levelheaded and earthbound, although he is reporting that he entertains great fears of losing his love. Even though the speaker is certain that this even must occur, he also seems to be implying that a remedy for the situation does exist. Or does he?

As readers have observed before, this clever speaker is always striving for the best narrative voice full of images with which to display his current musing. Despite the bend or curve of his thought at the moment, he remains dedicated to fashioning his argument with the best dramatic force. Thus, he will often come across as mysterious as he never wants to reveal what should best be held in check until the perfect time for it reveal.

Sonnet 64: “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d”

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-raz’d,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate—
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Reading of Sonnet 64

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles


The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel: "When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text." APA does not address this issue.

Commentary

In sonnet 64, the speaker remains earthbound, reporting that he fears losing his love but is convinced that it must happen. But does he imply a remedy?

First Quatrain: The Theme of Decay and Loss

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-raz’d,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;

Beginning with the first quatrain, the speaker asserts four adverbial "when" clauses, two in the first quatrain, each dramatizing the theme of decay and loss. The speaker avers that he has seen "outworn buried age[s]" devastated by the hand of Time. The mature speaker has seen "lofty towers" taken down and "brass eternal slave to mortal rage." Through war and civil havoc, the speaker has observed the destruction that comes to all things in the mortal world.

This well-traveled and keenly-observant speaker can report his vast experience in order to summon the logic behind all of his claims. He remains well acquainted with the world of delusion with its pairs of opposites: its building up and its tearing down, its profundity and its shallowness—all worth exploring with a sharp eye and brain that is capable of turning such physical realities into art that can represent the mystical.

Second Quatrain: The Struggle of Opposite Natures

When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;

The speaker then pivots to the natural events of the sea that range upon the shore, as he continues with the third "when" clause. The speaker has experienced observing the waxing and waning of the waves as they beat upon the shore and bring about the erosion of the sand; however, the land always returns the onslaught, fighting back and regaining control from the waves. The waves bring their force upon the land, and the land again offers its force unto the waves in an everlasting struggle of opposite natures. Of course, all of the natural creation is composed of sets of opposites, or its existence would be impossible.

The artist’s ability to observe always serves him well, but the artist also needs to ability to maneuver what he observes in order to shape and frame the raw observed material into the imagery that will confirm his claims. The expository nature of a creative piece must always work in tandem with the impressionistic nature or else no sense can be made of the work. This loss of integration of mind and heart caused untold damage to the postmodern art world, as artists lost their ability to connect thoughts and things.

Third Quatrain: Learning from Ruin

When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate—
That Time will come and take my love away.

The final "when" clause discloses that the speaker has seen nations go down to decay. The speaker then reveals that when he has taken all of this decay and devastation into account, he has learned from all of this "ruin" "to ruminate" and conclude, "Time will come and take my love away.” From all of his observation and experience of watching things be spoiled, destroyed, wrecked, and broken, the speaker has been able to draw a certain conclusion about how the physical world operates.

From the young child who thinks his world will yield to his joys eternally to the old man who has seen perpetual destruction, the mind of man comes to realize the evanescence of all physical existence. This speaker while feeling intensely the devastation of such destruction, nevertheless, remains capable of molding those thoughts, feelings, and things into beauty, the one quality that his art will always return to him untold pleasure and comfort.

The Couplet: Logical Conclusion

This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

In the couplet the speaker is remarking that like death pain of loss remains a human burden upon the mind and heart. The speaker has discerned that if one cannot escape "death" and loss, then one has no choice but to be driven to the dread of losing what he has. The sonnet leaves the reader with an empty feeling, which is unlike most of the other sonnets. The speaker habitually poses problems but almost always solves them. This sonnet leaves the reader with a loss that is not restored until the next sonnet.

The Real "Shakespeare"

The De Vere Society is  dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Did Shakespeare Really Write Shakespeare? – Tom Regnier

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes