Summary and Analysis of Sonnet 15 by William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare- Often called England’s National Poet, William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest dramatist in the English language. Also known as the Bard of Avon, his works include approximately 38 plays, including collaborations, 154 sonnets and 2 long narrative poems, and some other verses of uncertain ownership.


Sonnet 15- This poem is one of Shakespeare’s procreation sonnets. The speaker makes an attempt to convince the young man to reproduce. He does this by invoking images of things that have been affected by the passage of time.

Setting of Sonnet 15- 

Sonnet 15 is a procreation sonnet in the ‘Fair Youth’ sequence. In the earlier sonnets of the Fair Youth sequence, the speaker tried to convince the young man to immortalise himself through procreation. However an interesting shift can be seen occurring in this poem, where the speaker declares that he will immortalise the young man through the power of verse.

Poetic Devices in Sonnet 15- 

Metaphors:

Line 2- ‘holds in perfection’- refers to the prime of one’s youth

Line 3- ‘stage’ refers to the world

Line 4- ‘stars in secret influence comment’- stars affecting the lives of human beings

Line 6- ‘Cheer’d and check’d’

Line 7- ‘youthful sap’- vitality of youth

Line 8- ‘brave state’- youth

Line 11- ‘Time debateth with Decay’— the effect of time on erosion of youth

Line 14- ‘engraft you new’- immortalise through verse

Simile: Line 5- ‘men as plants’

Alliteration: 

Line 4- ‘stars…secret’

Line 6- ‘Cheered…checked’

Line 11- ‘Where wasteful’

Personification:

Line 4- ‘stars in secret influence comment’ – personification of stars

Line 11- ‘Time debateth with Decay’ – personification of time and decay

Style- 

The sonnet consists of 3 quatrains and a couplet. It follows the rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg.

Summary of Sonnet 15- 

The sonnets of the Fair youth sequence cover the theme of mortality. In the earlier sonnets the poet tried to convince a young man to procreate in order to pass on his beauty and youth to the next generation. The speaker tries to appeal to the young man through powerful images and arguments on why he should indeed reproduce.  This poem too begins in the same vein whereupon the speaker discusses the transient nature of things. He states that the perfection of life is temporary at an individual level. After a certain stage a living thing’s vitality begins to decrease and slowly, one’s youth gets decayed over time. The young man’s vanity about what is after all a temporary state has made the speaker concerned.  The speaker declares that he will wage a war against Time, that tries to age the young man. The speaker will try to immortalise the young man through verses thus helping him, at least metaphorically, escape the ravages of time.

Critical Analysis of Sonnet 15- 

Quatrain 1:


The speaker begins by commenting on the transient nature of life, at the individual level. The prime of one’s life is being referred here as ‘perfection’ which only lasts for a brief period of time. The speaker then, mentions how the world is a stage, a concept that is revisited in the iconic ‘The Seven Stages of Man’. But the purpose of this stage, as the speaker states, is solely for stars to show their influence on our lives. This is probably a reference to the belief that stars influence human lives. So this stage then becomes just a platform where the stars display their influence through the actions of human beings. The stars exercise this power in secret ways.

Quatrain 2:

In the second quatrain, the speaker compares men to plants. Like plants, men are encouraged and nourished by the same sky. In their youth (‘youthful sap’), there is often a feeling of pride. However after a man reaches his prime, there begins a gradual decline in one’s vitality. The final line of the quatrain can be read in two ways. On one hand, ‘wear’ can refer to the eroding of life that occurs with age.  In that case, the line would mean, that as a result of the gradual decline, the person’s youth will erode from memory. However, ‘wear’ can also refer to adorning oneself with something. In that case, the line could mean that as one’s youth disappears, the person in an attempt to relieve it would have to resort to memory. The act of adoring oneself through images out of memory is one of the possible interpretations of this line.

Quatrain 3:

Although youth is temporary, there’s often a lot of pride associated with it. The poet calls this pride ‘the conceit of this inconstant stay’. The young man’s excessive pride in himself, has led the poet to address him. In the next two lines, the poet tries to personify the concepts of ‘Time’ and ‘Decay’. The erosion of youth as time passes, is visualised by the poet as a debate between ‘Time and ‘Decay’. The speaker calls time ‘wasteful’ as it is slowly wearing off the vitality of the young man. Youth is referred as ‘day’ and old age as ‘night’.

Final couplet:

In the final couplet, the poem takes an unusual turn. The speaker, out of his love for the young man, has decided to declare war on Time. Instead of asking the young man to procreate as he had done in the previous sonnets of the series, the speaker has decided to immortalise this young man through verse. Through the power of verse, he would help the young man escape the ravages of time.

 Central Idea of Sonnet 15-

This sonnet is about the transience of youth and the immortalising power of verse.

Tone of Sonnet 15-

In sonnet 15, the tone is reflective at the start. It slowly turns into a tone of concern and ends with a streak of rebelliousness.

Conclusion- Written in a slightly less direct style than some of the earlier sonnets, this sonnet relies on a large number of metaphors to show the speaker’s concern. The most interesting part of the sonnet, though, is its ending. The speaker declares war on Time out of his love for the young man.  He invokes the immortalising power of verse and states that through his verse the young man would be able to escape the transient nature of life.

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