Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 Analysis

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 follows the same idea that can be found in other sonnets such as 1 and 3. Shakespeare is once again urging a young man to go out and procreate, even going as far as using the term “breed.” The speaker believes that men are completely wasting their lives by not having children and does not shy away from any opportunities to let them know that. Shakespeare doesn’t just tell this young man that but invites imagery of nature into his message to get his point across more strongly. In Sonnet 12, Shakespeare uses alliteration, metaphors, and imagery along with nature themes to present his idea of procreation to his male subject.

Shakespeare starts with a balanced antithesis in line 2 where he talks about “the brave day” and “hideous night.” Of course, Shakespeare is not referring to literal day and night cycles but the cycles of life. When he says day, he is referring to the youthful years that all humans experience in their lifetime. Another aspect of this line in the sonnet is that “brave” does not have the same meaning as we know it today. Considering this sonnet was written before 1599, “brave” actually meant something closer to “challenging.” Shakespeare is essentially saying that youthful men have to face many challenges if they wish to accomplish procreation. The first line may have allusions to clocks, which becomes a regular theme within this sonnet, but it quickly shifts in order to focus more on nature through the use of the cycle of day and night metaphor.

Lines 3 and 4 of the sonnet start to reference nature more directly. Line 4 has the phrase “violet past prime,” which describes a flower wilting. Shakespeare uses flower imagery to further push this idea of how fleeting youth can be. Rather than looking at nature when it is at its peak, Shakespeare looks at nature at its end. The word “sable” references the darkest brown color, which is referring to the dark hair of a man going gray.  Shakespeare uses color imagery in line 4 to further express the idea of a flower wilting. The line is also a continuation of the time metaphor that can be found in the first line of Sonnet 12. In Shakespeare’s day, “prime” was a term that was used to reference the first hour of the day. Six o’clock am specifically was when the day was considered to have begun.

Lines 5, 6, and 7 have direct and obvious allusions to nature. Line 5 describes “lofty trees,” line 6 describes the “canopy” of the trees, and line 7 describes “summer’s green.” Shakespeare describes the leaves of trees in nature as being a former source of shelter that were eventually taken down and “girded up,” or tied up tightly. Shakespeare also uses the phrase “summer’s green” which is actually a synecdoche. This phrase moves the reader from the imagery of lush forests to a bounty of crops. Shakespeare uses this idea of crops and nature to then create a metaphor on line 8 where he references a “white and bristly beard.” This metaphor personifies the “summer’s green” as an old man. 

The personification of the crops as an old man is the most mind-boggling thing about this sonnet because it seems to be implying that your “crops”, or children, need to be harvested before you become an old man who can no longer create or tend to these “crops.” The bier in line 8 is a frame used in funerals, so it only further pushes for the idea of “doing your duty” of procreating before you end up dying of old age. It’s probably one of the most puzzling lines in this entire sonnet because it’s the only real moment where Shakespeare moves away from the nature imagery to a personified bundle of crops being an old man. However, the beard phrase is also a reference to winter, where most things die in winter. Shakespeare jumps back and forth from nature imagery, time metaphors, and personification in this section of the sonnet. 

The rest of the sonnet, lines 9 through 14, is Shakespeare further enforces his message by mentioning how beauty doesn’t last forever. Shakespeare believes that beauty will only continue through children; our individual beauty will spoil just as “sweets” do. Line 12 specifically allows us to have a better understanding as to how Shakespeare views procreation. Shakespeare thinks that if people aren’t doing their part to create new life, they’re essentially just watching others fulfill their duty in life and you are doing nothing substantial except dying. He’s extremely ruthless in his beliefs and isn’t afraid to be dramatic when expressing those views.

Shakespeare is extremely focused on the mortality of one’s youthfulness during the entire sonnet and even alludes to the idea of being infertile in line 10 when he uses the word “wastes.” He believes in a natural order of things where men are required to have children to replace them in every aspect. He ends the sonnet by stating that the youth can rest in peace knowing that his beauty and his life will live on through his offspring. He also uses the word “brave” again in the final line of the couplet, bringing the reader to remember “brave” in line 2. It all comes full circle just as the circle of life does.

In conclusion, Shakespeare uses nature as a way of explaining how the young man has a responsibility to breed. He uses allusions to describe how quickly youthfulness runs out and there isn’t much time to waste. He goes as far as to even bring nature around and personify it as an old man which further expresses the mortality of youth. Shakespeare purposefully shows us nature at its dying state rather than its peak in order to instill fear in his intended male reader. Wasting away can be avoided if he has children because he can live through them. 

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