When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
This sonnet is so famous that it almost makes comment superfluous. It will always be one of the finest sonnets in the history of language. The slow and swift passage of time which brings all things to an end is described, not indeed copiously, but with such significant and devastating effect that mortality almost stares us in the face as we read it. The way in which the sense of the lines ends with the line itself is like the ticking of a clock or the inexorable motion of a pendulum as it beats from side to side. The significance of the placing of this sonnet here (12) (twelve hours of the day) as well as that of the ‘minute’ sonnet at 60 is difficult to determine, but at the very least it points to an ordering hand, which, like the clock itself, metes out the sequence of relevant events as they occur. (See JK, P.Classics Intro. p42.)
The overall effect is sombre, and the concluding couplet, with its brave stand against time, confined to a single line in the poem, gives the impression that nothing will be saved, and that the reality of what the poet has been urging all along is as slight as breath and water.