Shakespeare (1599) Given that human physical beauty is transitory, this sonnet considers how fleeting beauty is best used and offers a strategy to prolong it. In the beginning, the persona addresses a handsome young man and asks him to imagine himself at 40. At that age, the friend will be asked where his beauty, represented here as a kind of clothing ("proud livery" or a "tattered weed"), lies. If, on the one hand, he replies that his beauty still resides in his own "deep-sunken eyes," he would be making a shameful reply— shameful not only because little beauty would be left in those eyes but also because the friend would be confessing to the wasteful hoarding of beauty. If, on the other hand, the friend could point to a "fair child" whom he had engendered, he would have successfully invested his own beauty and proven himself worthy of praise. The "fair child" would "sum his count," an accounting metaphor which means that the child would render the friend's financial accounts balanced. The poem concludes with a couplet stating that to engender a child is to remake oneself when one is old, for the child has the ability to reheat the blood made cold through age.
Sonnet 2 fits in with the overarching theme of the first 17 sonnets of William Shakespeare's sonnet sequence, all of which concern procreation as a way of defeating death and achieving a kind of immortality. In form, it is an English sonnet, with the typical rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
Thematically, Sonnet 2 treats beauty as a commodity in which to invest. In line 6, for example, beauty is called the "treasure of thy lusty days." The poem argues that a beautiful young person who does not procreate wastes this precious resource. In significant ways, the poem harkens back to Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents. In that parable, Jesus praises "good and faithful servants" who invest their master's money and make a profit, but he condemns a "wicked and lazy servant" who, out of fear, buries his master's money and then returns it without interest. For Shakespeare, the handsome young man who does not procreate is a kind of bad servant because he does not use beauty to produce additional income (i.e., children) for his master. This, says Shakespeare, is a "thriftless" way to act.
Sonnet 2 begins with an ironic inversion of a conventional image of the sexual act being described as "plowing." Instead of a man plowing a woman's field in order to seed it, here the man's body becomes the plowed field, and time itself is the plowman. Forty winters plow deep trenches—wrinkles—in his forehead. This plowing is sterile, producing only ugly tatters in the "proud livery" of the friend's good looks. The poem's message is that the friend should get to his own productive "plowing" before time reverses the gender roles and "plows" his face. If he does so, the friend will then be able to look back at the product of his efforts, and the resulting pride will warm his old, tired blood because the "fair child" will be the bearer of his own beauty and blood line. The friend will, thus, be newly remade metaphorically.
See also Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
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