When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d even by the selfsame sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.
The opening thought rings changes on the perennial theme of mortality which so much engrosses the poet’s attention. He perceives the hand of doom in the minutiae of nature’s processes, and extends the observation to bring it to bear on the beloved youth. Such beauty and perfection is in the young man that the whole world is warring against Time in an effort to prevent his gradual decline from youth into age and death. Yet the poet has an alternative also, that in his verse the youth will live and be immortalised and his beauty will remain eternally new.
This is a variation on the Horatian theme of exegi monumentum aere perennius – I have built a monument more lasting than bronze – and focusses attention not on the poet himself, but on the object commemmorated, the loved one who is the subject of so much praise. With an irony which can hardly have been lost on Shakespeare, the youth attains immortality only as an abstraction, the essence of something beautiful, for we are never told his name and can never flesh him out as it were. But as Shakespeare would have no doubt reminded us,
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. RJ.II.2.43.
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