Analysis of William Shakespeare's Sonnet #12 "When I do count the clock that tells the time"

Analysis of William Shakespeare's Sonnet #12 "When I do count the clock that tells the time"

William Shakespeare's Sonnets were unlike anything else that was written in the early 1600s. He chose to write about a beautiful young man versus a beautiful lady. In Elizabethan England, aristocratic patronage was probably one of the most important assets that a professional could have; it offered money, protection, and prestige, which is probably one reason why he decided to shock his audience by switching up the established norm of the sonnet. Shakespeare departs from the established Petrarchan despairing lover, and explores several different moods, such as delight, pride, melancholy, shame, disgust, and fear. The first seventeen sonnets celebrates the beauty of the young man, and simultaneously urges him to have children so that his image will live on. Sonnet 12 follows the typical Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme: abab cdcd egef gg. Each sonnet contains three quatrains, which may each develop their own separate metaphor. The sonnet then ends with a rhyming couplet that may either confirm or pull sharply against what has been stated previously in the sonnet. Sonnet 12 focuses on the incessant movement of time, and the only way to defy Time is to beget children.

The first quatrain starts out in first person; it is the first time in this sonnet sequence that the speaker is putting himself into the narrative. He watches the clock perpetually ticking; in a sense he is trapped within time, immovable and powerless in relation to it. In the second line, there are contrasting images of "brave day" (bright/ splendid day) and "hideous night" (evil, dark image). These images show the progression of a day filled with joy to a night filled with horror. The "violet past prime" is probably referring to twilight; "prime" also stands for the ninth hour of the day. The speaker continues by describing what appears to be a man aging. "Sable curls all silvered o'er with white" can mean both that the man's sable (black) hair is turning silver and eventually white, meaning he's growing older; or if you continue on with the day/night and joy/horror metaphor that appears in the previous lines, sable would be describing the night sky that is light up with silver stars and the moon. The word "silvered," in line four, can be rearranged to produce the word "slivered," which could be a way of describing the moon in its current cycle of new moon to full moon; the moon is in itself a sign of regeneration, which is what the speaker's main goal for his subject-to carry on his legacy through an heir.

The second quatrain still relies on the images from nature to show the passage of time, but it begins to connect them with humanity. "When lofty trees I see barren of leaves" describes the natural cycle of death; the tree once stood tall with a magnificent array of leaves, but now all the green is gone and all that is left are the brown branches. It "erst" (formerly) functioned as a huge canopy that the herds would lay under to protect from the heat. All the green from summer is gathered up and carried on a "bier" (a stand on which a corpse or coffin is placed) along with the old man who had the coarse white beard (as described in line four). In line eight, "borne" is a symbol of a new beginning, but it also means to carry something. Also, line eight has alliteration-the repetition of an initial consonant sound or consonant cluster in consecutive or closely positioned words (borne, bier, bristly, beard); the speaker does this to draw attention to this last line; it marks the end of the first person narrative.
These first two quatrains follow a metaphor about the progression of a man's life (provided that the man has not married or procreated) using nature images. A man begins his live bravely, wanting to explore the world around him and learn as much as he can. Once he has reached his prime he begins to sink into his twilight years, and his beard begins to turn silver. Things don't come as easily to him, and he isn't in as much demand as he once was. The girls who once flocked to him have either been married or have lost interest. His beauty has waned, and been replaced by the wrinkles and gray hair that mark old age. His life continues thus until he dies; leaving the world with no one to keep his memory alive.

In the third quatrain, there is a shift in tone, and the speaker begins to talk directly to the young man. The speaker tells the young man that the boy's beauty makes him speculate that there is no escape from decay and eventual death. If one continues the nature images then "sweets" and "beauties" would most likely be flowers (or other plant life). Flowers forsake (renounce) themselves and must die and see others grow in their place; a new generation will be born, because that is the cycle of life.

In the rhyming couplet, time is no longer a concept. The only way to fight Time and death is to breed; breeding means living forever.
Chronus is the personification of time, and he came to be portrayed with the sickle (or later the scythe), which was used to remind us that time is unrelenting, it passes whether you like it or not. The sickle and the scythe became established symbols of death (Biedermann 308).


Biedermann, Hans. Dictonary of Symbolism. New York: Meridian, 1994.

Shakespeare, William. "12." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1062-3.


  1. Hi, what would his tone be in the third quatrain as well as the rhyming couplet?
    Thank you :)

    1. Hey there,
      I believe that the tone in the third quatrain is disappointment- he expected things to be different somehow, but realized that the boy is just like everything else and that disappoints him.
      The rhyming couplet's tone is pragmatic (dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations).

      Hope this helps!


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