William Shakespeare is a name in the literary world that needs no introduction. It is amusing to think that the poet who wrote so much about the destructive nature of time is immune to it.
Hundreds of years have passed and yet the name of William Shakespeare is just as relevant and resonant. Sonnet 64 by William Shakespeare is a brilliant poem about the nature and effect of time on us.
Also called “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d,” the tone and message of the poem is very personal. The poem makes readers feel how time can rob them of the most important things in their life.
But as with other sonnets by Shakespeare, the meaning of the poem is usually hidden under a layer of beautifully spun and rolled verses. In this article, we will simplify the poem, and present the meaning of it.
Sonnet 64: When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d by William Shakespeare
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-ras'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 wat'ry 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.
Simplification of the Sonnet
When I have seen what the hand of Time can do
and the cost of getting older, aging
When I see large towers completely destroyed
The strong brass never escapes the stronger effects of time
When I see the waves of an ocean
wash over the shore and cover it with water
But the wave recedes, and the sands try to hold the water
Both water and sand losing and gaining with every wave
When I have things changing every second
or things changing to decay
Such ruins have taught me to think
That one day Time will come and take my love away
This thought is just like death; I cannot choose to escape it
All I can do is weep to have something that I fear to lose.
Meaning and Analysis of the Poem
After reading the simplified version of the sonnet, you might think that the subject of the poem is time. But that’s not the subject, even though time has been personified.
The subject of the sonnet is the human emotion of impending loss. The poet is explaining why he feels sorrow for having someone he loves.
It seems so jarring if you think about it; why would you feel bad for having a person that you love the most? Not just a person, but any prized possession that is close to your heart.
The sonnet says that knowing that time will surely take away the person you love, or the thing that you are so fond of having, brings a sense of hopelessness and sorrow.
It is after seeing that no matter how “strong” things are, they can never be safe from the effects of time. Time is personified in the sonnet and this personification is very important.
Time as an abstract concept, or just as “ticking of clocks” does not invoke the same fear as time as a person does. Time becomes a person that takes away everything, and everyone.
The Physical Effects of Time
The sonnet starts with the poet saying how he has witnessed the destructive effects of time on things so magnificently large and strong.
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
Lofty towers and brass are some of the things we know to be extremely strong and resilient. Yet the poet sees these towers completely destroyed and brass change its color to show the effects of age.
The Process of Change
After the destructive effects of time on things, the poet talks about the nature and process of change. Change is nothing but Time’s way of telling us about its presence.
Shakespeare takes the crashing of waves as the metaphor and it works perfectly to show the presence and effects of change.
There is a tussle between the sea and the shore. The sea wants to take more of the shore and the shore wants to take more of the sea. But the very act of “taking” makes them lose at the same time.
The water loses itself in trying to get more land, and the more water the land stores, the more it loses itself. That’s the nature of change; destruction in every way.
The Pain of Having Someone Precious
We all want to love someone, to have someone in our lives who means so much to us. But this desire is a double-edged sword.
Knowing that time will take this person away from you, in one way or another and yet needing a person to love creates a tension in the heart, a friction that burns and scathes.
This understanding is what creates the pain in the heart. It is knowing that the loss is inevitable and you can do nothing but just weep in fear. That’s the essence of the poem.