Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o’ersways their power, How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower? Oh how shall summer’s honey breath hold out Against the wrackful siege of battering days, When rocks impregnable are not so stout Nor gates of steel so strong but time decays? Oh fearful meditation! where, alack, Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? Oh none, unless this miracle have might- That in black ink my love may still shine bright. This sonnet shares several similarities in imagery as sonnets 63 and 66, and also to the theme of time and Rome as seen in Spencer’s translatory sonnet sequence, _Ruins of Rome by: Bellay_. To best understand this sonnet we must realize to what or whom the pronouns refer to.
My explication relies on “their” in line 2 referring to both time and ruin, a theme sustained from sonnet 64. 2: ‘Only depressing mortality can overturn the tyranny of time and ruin, considering that brass, stone, earth or sea cannot prevent it’. Thus, death is an escape from time and the ruin which it imposes. The second quatrain is reminiscent of the thematic imagery of Rome’s susception to time in sonnet 9 of _Ruines of Rome_: “Why were not these Romane palaces / Made of some matter no lesse fime and strong? . . . All things which beneath the Moone haue being / Are temporall, and subject to decay.
Echoing the elements in the first line of the sonnet, Shakespeare is iterating the inability to avoid and prevent time. “Battering days” also shares this imagery as “Time’s injurious hand crush’d”; which, to note further, appears as “iniurious time” in Spencer’s work. Knowing this, he appeals to dreadful and injurious knowledge in line 9: ‘where should we hide time’s most precious jewel [our youth] from the vault it is held in’. the reason I believe the jewel to be a symbol of youth stems from sonnet 63, in which time steals “away the treasure of his spring.
Spring here, and in many other sonnets of Shakespeare, refers to youth and sexual prime. And Shakespeare’s rhetoric of youth being the prized asset of a person’s life (aside children) is exemplified by the superlative “best” modifying the jewel. A possible correlation to this quatrain is seen in sonnet 19 of _Ruines of Rome_ where “All the good hap of th’oldest times afore, / Rome in the time of her great ancesters, / Like a Pandora, locked long in stone.
Incorporating this idea into the paraphrase better reveals Shakespeare’s intent in the meaning of “Time’s chest. ” I feel that Shakespeare, having read Spencer’s translation, realized the truth of inevitable time, hence the vocative addressing of “meditation [or knowledge]. ” Furthermore, the adjective “fearful” should not be taken lightly, and to me evokes and idea of knowledge, moreover, complete knowledge, as Faustus’ damnation (Marlowe) and Childe Harold’s discontent and reason for sorrow (Byron).