To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
This sonnet is thought by many to be one of the so called ‘dating’ sonnets. If we could determine the date when youth and poet first met, so the argument runs, we could then decide when this sonnet was written. This may be so, but it has been pointed out that the three year period mentioned in lines 3-7 is probably only notional, a conventional time span for love to build and fructify. Ronsard, Desportes, Daniel and others celebrated a three year span of loving allegiance (JK. p.308). Horace is also suggested as the originator of the three year statutory period of grace, when he sings of his passion for Inachia.
hic tertius December ex quo destiti
Inachia furere, silvis honorem decutit.
‘This is the third December, since I at last ceased to seethe in love for Inacchia, which now shakes down from the trees all their glory.’
It is known that Daniel changed the original three year time span in his ‘Delia’ sonnets to five in the revised edition of 1594. (GBE.p.212). It seems clear that the three year time span given in this poem is at best unreliable.
However I propose another, rather more brutal form of dating, derived from the numbers themselves. The successive use of threes suggests either that we add them together, or multiply them, giving a direct reference to either 1599, or 1604, perhaps both. The 1599 date is obtained by multiplying the threes of lines 3 and 4 and the two threes of line 7 (ignoring line 5), or by adding the three of lines 3, 4 and 5. This gives the two nines of the date 1599, the fifteen having to be supplied by imagination or inference. In any case it ties in with the 1599 date which I believe to have been already signalled by sonnet 99, with its fifteen lines.
The 1604 date is arrived at by adding the two threes of lines 3 and 4, and also of lines 7 and 8. In fact only one 6 is required, the other being a sort of bonus, or emphasis. The six is inserted into the sonnet number, 104, giving 1604. Both dates, 1599 and 1604, are probably relevant to the composition of the sonnets, whether as starting or finishing points, or perhaps marking significant dates in the relationship. See for example KDJ, Introduction, pp.21-4, for a discussion of the later date in relation to Sonnet 107. For the earlier date see my commentary on Sonnet 99.
Interesting though all this discussion of dates is, it must be admitted that it is unverifiable, and based entirely on informed guesswork. It is also a matter of no great import, save that it does gives us a general idea of when the sonnets were most probably written, and it shifts the focus away, for example, from the very early dates at one time attributed to them, during the major part of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the concern was chiefly to pass the works off as apprentice pieces, lest the great bard should be in some way morally stigmatised by his confessions of love. Nowadays, and perhaps for only a brief period in human history, we are less disturbed by such matters and can discuss them with relative freedom. We can therefore look at all the proposed frameworks of composition with equanimity, and it does seem that, in recent years, a date centred around the turn of the century, i.e. 1600, has become more favoured as the probable date of composition.
One other point in connection with the number of this sonnet, which deserves a brief mention, is that 104 in weeks corresponds to exactly two years. The number itself may therefore be a wry comment on the three years sprinkled so liberally throughout, or it may suggest that we should multiply them by two to give us the six of 1604, or it may serve as emphasis of the two nines of 1599, (or it may be doing none of these things and be merely an irrelevant number).