To Me, Fair Friend, You Never Can Be Old

Lot of people died last couple of weeks.  Big deal, lot of people die every week.  Maybe you’re upset over what you’re seeing on the evening news, maybe you don’t care.  Maybe it’s simply made you think about the passage of time, getting older, losing things that mean something to you… who knows.  In my usual cruising around for Shakespeare material I tripped across something that struck a chord, particularly this week, that I thought I’d share.

To me, fair Friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters’ cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred,—
Ere you were born, was beauty’s summer dead.

I can’t even say I fully understand that one yet (it’s Sonnet 104, by the way).  It jumped at me entirely because it’s one of those opening lines that pops so well.  I like when Shakespeare goes head to head with Time, Death and immortality.  This is no Sonnet 18, but in a way it’s like Shakespeare gives us our own personal “So long lives this” moment.   These days we’d say something like “here’s how I’d like to remember this person.”  If you’re a fan of Michael Jackson, do you prefer video of him in his later crazy years, or at his peak? Only it’s got a whole different meaning because you’re saying it to the person while they’re still alive – to me you’ll never grow old, because you’re still as beautiful as the first time I saw you.  Sounds like the kind of thing you might tell your wife after 50 years of marriage.  (Although truthfully even after 50 years of marriage I don’t think I could pull it off without hearing “Are you saying I look old?” 🙂 ) It’s quite possible that this one goes on to say the exact opposite.  But I’m not in the mood to care.  I like the opening, and I will take it to mean what I want today. Know what I mean? [ Whoa, here’s something scary.  While looking up backing references I found this interpretation:

The speaker addresses his poem as “fair friend,” but then makes it clear immediately that this “fair friend” is not a human friend, by asserting “you never can be old.” Such a claim cannot be averred about a human being, and as the reader has seen many times, while this speaker often exaggerates, he never diverts his eye and hand from truth.
… The speaker is addressing a poem that he wrote three years ago, and he declares that the beauty of this poem is as evident as when he first “ey’d” it. Even after “three winters cold” which changed the “forests” that shone with “summer’s pride, the poem is fresh with the beauty of youth.

And this one:

Here the poet uses his fond memories of first meeting his lover as inspiration to write the poem. It is clear from Sonnet 104, and the other Sonnets as a whole, that the passion he feels for his male lover (possibly the Earl of Southampton), is the most intense experience the poet has ever encountered. Nothing is important but his lover; his lover is eternal, both in beauty and spirit.

Funny how different they can be, huh? ]

6 thoughts on “To Me, Fair Friend, You Never Can Be Old

  1. Here's something to contemplate.
    original spellings:

    For as you were when first your eye I eyde,

    The word eyde (now spelled 'eyed', with only one meaning usually inferred e.g.–to look, see, let sight fall on, etc.) is also an adjective, meaning having eyes–and not necessarily only two, but one or more, and can also be used as a verb–to eye (not as in sight)–the past tense of which would be 'eyed'–which if intentionally spelled differently here to note a particular intent or action, having 'eyde; it could mean writing a dotted 'i', or, as 'eye' can also be a noun meaning aperture, as in the round lens of a camera or anything that opens similarly, eyde could also be taken to mean to have literally "opened (eyde) the eye of the eye that was eyde (eyed)"–the possibilities are a little confusing, as well as maybe a little "eye-opening", to say the least. :))

  2. An excerpt of the commentary from my book on this poem:
    'Here we have another self-rebutting sonnet. In the first two quatrains the speaker claims that the youth’s beauty has not faded, but in the third quatrain that he may, after all, be deceived. In the couplet, he declares that, in case this is so, he must inform the future that his friend was the paragon of beauty. Some commentators take this sonnet’s time span literally, inferring that it was written three years after the speaker met the beloved. However, LEE (1907) remarks, “The period seems to have been more or less conventional among the sonneteers,” citing several instances.
    Booth comments on “your eye I eyde” (line 2): “The wit of the construction can never have been subtle, but it is now unfortunately made gross and puerile by the semantic strain a modern reader must feel in the use of ‘eye’ as a general synonym for ‘see’ or ‘gaze upon.’” He notes “the comparatively graceful triple pun by which Shakespeare achieved a clause in which grammatical object, subject, and verb are all expressed in one sound.” In addition to lacking subtlety, the phrase is difficult to pronounce euphoniously. However, Vendler notes that in Laurence Olivier’s recitation of this poem to Katherine Hepburn (in the television movie Love Among the Ruins, 1975), “these (apparently) awkward repetitions in line 2 were revealed as the stammering of a lovestruck boy, astonished at this first glimpse of the potential intercourse of love.”'

  3. “these (apparently) awkward repetitions in line 2 were revealed as the stammering of a lovestruck boy, astonished at this first glimpse of the potential intercourse of love.”'

    Although an inventive, technical genius, Larry never was admired for his expertise at versification.
    They're all single syllable words– the whole sentence is. It seems a slowing down, not a speeding up, is what Shakespeare is hearing here. Especially since an actor (or reciter–one and the same to me) wouldn't want to just blow through the "non-subtlety" and pointedness of those three words, given the importance in wordplay they all too apparently deserve.
    I think there's more opportunity for euphony in the assonance of the erotic, heated, exhalations of a knowing lover. Pronouncing it becomes a lot easier then.
    Congratulations Carl, and much success with your new book!

  4. The thing that really strikes me in that poem is that, for Shakespeare, three years is a really substantial slice of a person's life–time enough for beauty to be expected to fade. Theirs was a hard world.

  5. In Bill Bryson's memorable phrase, "William Shakespeare was born into a world that was short of people and struggled to keep those it had."

    Just look at the lives of playwrights: Thomas Kyd, dead at 35; Robert Greene, 34; George Peele, 40; Thomas Middleton, 47; Christopher Marlowe, 29; Philip Massinger, 57; Francis Beaumont, 32; John Fletcher, 46; William Rowley, 41; John Marston, 57; John Webster, 54; Henry Chettle, 43; John Ford, 54; Cyril Tourneur, 51; and of course, William Shakespeare, 52. Ben Jonson lived to be 65, a ripe old age at the time, and Anthony Munday might have lived into his 70s.

    Not even royalty did much better than those depressing numbers; you can really imagine how people would see Providence in Queen Elizabeth living to the age of 70, and ruling for over 40 years.

  6. Reminds me, Craig, of when I interpreted "when 40 winters shall besiege thy brow" to mean "40 years from now" and somebody corrected me that it more likely meant "when you are 40 years old." I don't expect too many folks in Shakespeare's day were living up into their 60-70's.

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