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Shakespeare Sonnet 68

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

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 68: "Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn"

In sonnet 68, the speaker is once again chastising those poetasters who merely imitate the older established artist. The imitations lack the honesty and genuine search for truth and beauty that the originals possessed.

In the preceding sonnet, the speaker had also broached the subject of good art vs bad, but he concluded that nature can possess both and the good and true will outshine and outlive the mediocre.

Because this speaker knows himself to be a genuine talent, he is capable of offering criticism of the works of others. And he is not shy in letting his listeners and readers know what he deems legitimate and what he deems unworthy of honor and praise.

Sonnet 68: "Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn"

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn
When beauty liv’d and died as flowers do now,
Before these bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow;
Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away,
To live a second life on second head;
Ere beauty’s dead fleece made another gay:
In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another’s green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new;
And him as for a map doth Nature store,
To show false Art what beauty was of yore.

Reading of Sonnet 68

Commentary

Sonnet 68 is a companion piece to sonnet 67, continuing the theme of authentic art vs the artificial.

First Quatrain: Nature Proffering True Art

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn
When beauty liv’d and died as flowers do now,
Before these bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow;

The speaker begins sonnet 68, linking it to sonnet 67, with the conjunctive adverb "thus." Because Nature will always be able to proffer true art through true artists, therefore "is his cheek the map of days outworn." On the aging face of the true artist will "beauty" live and die, despite the phony upstarts who merely copycat and therefore denigrate art with their prettiness and shallowness.

The speaker is metaphorically using face to mean the face of art, not the face of the human artist. He is not concerned with human appearance here as he was in the "marriage sonnets." The speaker, instead, is concerned only with the genuine art of bona fide artists. Earlier art provided a "beauty" that "liv’d and died as flowers do now." That was before "these bastard signs of fair were born" who now dare to copy past masters yet remain poetasters.

Second Quatrain: The Abomination of Poetasters

Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away,
To live a second life on second head;
Ere beauty’s dead fleece made another gay:

The shallowness of copycat poetasters is an abomination just as are grave robbers who steal hair from the dead to fashion into wigs. The "second life" of that hair that well suited its original owner becomes an unnatural prop, not an outgrowth of beauty.

The speaker implies that such art is unnatural, unoriginal and therefore lacks the attributes of natural beauty and truth, which he much disdains as counterfeit. By comparing metaphorically such artists to grave robbers, the speaker makes it known that he values the older works that have stood the test of time. Better such art remain sepulchered than brought out by shining hucksters whose bogusness denigrates the art.

Third Quatrain: Valid Artists

In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another’s green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new;

The speaker then turns to the valid artist whose "holy antique hours are seen." That artist’s creations are genuine, "Without all ornament, itself and true, / Making no summer of another’s green, / Robbing no old to dress his beauty new."

The legitimate artist does not rely on decorations; his metaphors and image are "true." He does not reply on the work of others. The genuine artist has no need to "rob" or copy from older artists to enhance his own work.

The Couplet: The Stockpiles of Nature

And him as for a map doth Nature store,
To show false Art what beauty was of yore.

It is the work of that indisputable artist that Nature stockpiles using his true creations as a "map" "[t]o show false Art what beauty was of yore." No matter how much the contemporary poetasters "rob" from the artists of yesteryear, only Nature will recognize the authentic, genuine, heart-felt works of the morally and spiritually inspired artist.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford: The Real "Shakespeare"

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes