12


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





This sonnet is so famous that it almost makes comment superfluous. It will always be one of the finest sonnets in the history of language. The slow and swift passage of time which brings all things to an end is described, not indeed copiously, but with such significant and devastating effect that mortality almost stares us in the face as we read it. The way in which the sense of the lines ends with the line itself is like the ticking of a clock or the inexorable motion of a pendulum as it beats from side to side. The significance of the placing of this sonnet here (12) (twelve hours of the day) as well as that of the \'minute\' sonnet at 60 is difficult to determine, but at the very least it points to an ordering hand, which, like the clock itself, metes out the sequence of relevant events as they occur. (See JK, P.Classics Intro. p42.)


The overall effect is sombre, and the concluding couplet, with its brave stand against time, confined to a single line in the poem, gives the impression that nothing will be saved, and that the reality of what the poet has been urging all along is as slight as breath and water.


1. count = record, sum up;
tells = gives an account of, speaks (by chiming). In days when light was scarce, the audible telling of time was important, hence the use of repeater clocks which, when a button was pressed, or a string pulled, chimed out the hour most recently passed. Village and town clocks also chimed on the hour.


2. brave: here the word has almost a visual significance, suggesting brightness and gallantry, as opposed to the ugliness and darkness of hideous night. Compare Miranda\'s exclamation in The Tempest:
Oh brave new world,
That has such people in\'t! Tem.V.1.183-4,
and Henry King:
Brave flowers, that I could gallant it like you
And be as little vain! (c. 1650).


3. The violet is emblematic of the Spring and new growth.
prime = the period of perfection, the springtime best. Hence past prime is past their best, fading, dying.


4. sable = black; a term from heraldry.
all silvered o\'er with white = having turned silvery due to the whiteness of age. The description is of the black or dark hair of a youth turning white as he becomes an old man. See for example the celebrated passage in As You Like It, All the world\'s a stage, etc. AYL.II.7.139-166. Also Horace Odes I.9:
.....nec dulces amores
Sperne puer, neque tu choreas
Donec virenti canities abest
Morosa.

So do not spurn love, or the dance, while youth yet reigns, and from your lusty head the white hairs are still absent.
See the note to line 12 below.


Q reads \'or siluer\'d ore\' and suggested emendations are discussed in numerous editions. I have used the most commonly accepted emendation.


5. The leafless trees are described as barren, suggesting waste and futility, and the destructive processes of age and decay through time. Cf Sonnet 73.


6. erst = formerly, erstwhile;
canopy = to cover as with a canopy, to shade. Cattle and sheep stand under trees in times of heat.


7. summer\'s green This refers to the wheat or barley growing in the fields;
girded up in sheaves = bound together with string round the middle to make a sheaf or bundle. Before the days of combine harvesters wheat was cut by hand, then bound into sheaves which were carried to the threshing barn on a cart or \'bier\' . (See illustration