When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d
Will be a tatter’d
weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d
where all they beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praised deserv’d
thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst
answer–‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse–‘
Proving this beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new-made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st
The physical beauty of womanhood serves many purposes in the economy of God. Primarily it anticipates the beauty of the church, the blood-washed bride of Christ. In addition, it ensures that men are attracted to a mate so that families are created, and the human race is perpetuated. Feminine beauty can also add an aesthetic dimension to relationship; it is important to look fresh for the sake of others. If the physical beauty of youth is depended upon, and attention is not given to inner graces (like long-suffering, patience, kindness, etc.), then a woman’s attractiveness has an end. Age will not be avoided, nor shall its imprint be erased. It shall appear as “deep trenches in … beauty’s field.” Shakespeare addresses the inevitable by suggesting that beauty can be reproduced in offspring. For Shakespeare, then, it is essential that a young woman make it her duty to marry and prove “beauty by succession.”
As the inevitable is painted in word-pictures, there is a sense of hopelessness which is characterized by such words as: “winters shall besiege thy brow,” “dig deep trenches,” “tatter’d weed of small worth,” “deep sunken eyes,” and “all-eating shame.” This changes at the volta, however:
“How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,”
The tone now becomes one of potential solution. Although, the poem finishes with a melancholy note: a feeling of coldness prevails in the presence of new blood; the death of personal beauty is guaranteed, but beauty as a form continues in progeny.
Sonnets have always been the favoured form of poets to express love, and the more important issues of life. The theme of Shakespeare’s verse is better served in the genre of the sonnet. As mentioned before, Shakespeare’s use of words contrasts sharply with his theme of physical beauty. There is a steady down-ward progression of images, moving towards the grave coldness of the final couplet. However, imposed upon this down-ward movement is the sense of resurrection, or at least a sense of hope in the midst of the unavoidable.
The last line of the second quatrain suggests personal responsibility for the loss of physical beauty. The dissipation of youth creates a guilty conscience that is plagued by “an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.” Procreation, therefore, sports an element of penance for youth’s wantonness.
When read aloud, the words of the poem make their passage with difficulty. Facing up to the consequences of our youthful indiscretions, and the steady encroachment of old age, is a very difficult and painful process.
Shakespeare has a point, if the poem is considered from a purely humanistic perspective. Physical beauty does fade, and more quickly if it is through foolish youthful dissipation. There is a sense of physical beauty having its regeneration in our progeny. However, it is not physical beauty which is eternal. The real beauty of a woman is described by the Apostle Peter as “the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.”