Analysis of Sonnet 12 : When I Do Count The Clock That Tells The Time

So I was reading the sonnets today at lunch.  Not somebody’s commentary, the plain text file.  I was looking for something random and romantic to text my wife on this nice spring day we’re having.  (I know, awwww…….:))  [UPDATE : I actually started this yesterday, I just realized that I’m posting it a) before lunch and b) it’s raining. ]
Anyway, I was intrigued at how without training in what the heck it all means (Hi Carl!) some of them just make your eyes glaze over, and some pop out and make sense.  I think it has a great deal to do with word choice, in particular the first line or two.  If you immediately hit on a word that you don’t understand (“unprovident?”), and you can’t figure it out from context of the other words, then I expect you’re basically screwed as far as “getting” that particular sonnet, at least until you get some reference materials.
So I happened to get a kick out #12:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white; 
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
  And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
  Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

We know, since it’s one of the “procreation sonnets”, that the blunt message of this one is “Dude, have a kid.”   I like the way this one just rattles off the rapidfire images of what happens to things as time goes by / when they get old:

* sunset (“brave day sunk into hideous night”)

* withered flowers (“violet past prime”)

* gray hair (“sable curls all silvered over with white”)

* lofty trees barren of leaves

* fields all harvested (“summer’s green all girded up in sheaves”)

Then, he makes it personal — “Bro, I’ve seen what happens to things when they get old, man, and then, well, I look at you, you know?  And I wonder how long you’re gonna stay as beautiful as you are right now?”

I mean, that’s just good stuff right there.  It doesn’t say much about the person they’re apparently written *to*, who must be just crazy obsessed with his own awesomeness, but it says wonders for the poet.

It ends almost conspiratorially, calling out a throwdown against Time himself, the dude with the scythe – “You want to know how to tell Time to go screw himself?  Have a kid.” 

I think I like this one because, while reading it, I can visualize an entire scene – some annoying prince who refuses to get married and have kids, and an adviser whispering in his ear, playing to all the prince’s own weaknesses and conceits.  He doesn’t say “Everybody gets old”, he paints a picture of how ugly things get when they get old.  They he transitions into “You know, you’re beautiful now, but….” only briefly, just planting the idea, before quickly (I can even imagine him snapping his fingers like, “Aha!”) moving on to “Hey, I just had an idea!” (like he just thought of it, yeah right)  “You want to know how you can have the last laugh?  What if you had a kid?  Then when your time does eventually come, you’ll know that the world can still benefit from your beauty.”  And then the prince, who has been staring out the window the whole time, smiles and nods like “Yes, yes, that is a good plan, I will have the last laugh.”

I’m not saying that my interpretation any way echoes reality – we have no idea who they were written to, they were almost certainly not recited directly to the intended, and I doubt strongly that anyone of them convinced the recipient to go sow some wild oats.  I’m saying that you could pull this one out of the entire lineup and you could write an entire story of your own around it, it is that vivid in its imagery.

One thought on “Analysis of Sonnet 12 : When I Do Count The Clock That Tells The Time

  1. Duane,
    What a great commentary on Sonnet 12! And a good point about the difference between sonnets that are immediately available to the reader and those that are more obscure. I suspect you will find that more of them are immediately available than you might think. Benson has this to say in his preface to his edition of 1640: “…you shall find them serene, clear and elegantly plain, such gentle strains as shall recreate and not perlex your brain, no intricate or cloudy stuff to puzzle intellect, but perfect eloquence.” I think this describes poems like Sonnet 12 well (especially in comparison to some of John Donne’s metaphysical sonnets). In addition, one can add to the list of accessible sonnets by either having a paperback edition with good glosses (I have previously recommended the Penquin edition)–it doesn’t work for all of the sonnets, but a surprising number of them become qutie clear when a few of the words are explained–or by referring to the Oxford English Dictionary. It is amazing how often the OED comes up with just the answer you are looking for (unprovident = incautious). Unfortunately, although extremely useful in many circumstances, the OED is also very expensive–the CD costs about $300. I was lucky enough to have it given to me as a present. I have used it a zillion times since.

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