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Analysis Sonnet 1 by William Shakespeare 4.11.2012 Englisch-LK Analysis: Sonnet 1 In this essay, the first of the 154 sonnets by William Shakespeare, released in 1609 is going to be analysed. The first seventeen of these sonnets are addressed to the poet’s friend, whose identity is unknown, assuming he existed at all. The poem has the typical structure of a Shakespearean sonnet since it consists of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet, with a regular abab, cdcd, efef, gg rhyme scheme and a iambic pentameter. It contains several…

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 12


Seminar Paper:

Literary Studies I


Table of contents


1.    Introduction page 3

2.    Sonnet page 4

3.    Lyric Speech Situation page 5

4.    Theme page 6

5.    General Structure page 6

6.    Rhythm and Metre page 6-7

7.    Rhyme and Other Sound Patterns page 7

8.    Rhetorical Figures on the Semantic Level page 8-9

9.    Conclusion page 9-10

10. References page 11


1.   Introduction


“To be or not to be, that is the question” is a very famous quotation from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, one of his most popular dramas. But what many people do not know is that Shakespeare wrote much more than “Romeo and Juliet”, “Hamlet” and “Macbeth”, he also wrote 154 lyric poems, which are nowadays known as the Shakespearean English sonnets.
He wrote them during the years while the theaters had to stay closed because of a plague epidemic.

Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to a “young man” (“Mr. W. H.”), sonnets 127-152 are addressed to a “dark lady” and the last ones 153-154 are addressed to a “rival poet”. We cannot name those persons who are addressed by Shakespeare’s sonnets, we only know a little about their characteristics and thus many speculations about Shakespeare’s life have resulted from the mysterious addressees in his sonnets.

It looks as if Shakespeare wanted to keep this as a secret.
However, the first 17 sonnets are called the procreation sonnets. In these sonnets, the lyric “I” advises the lyric “thou” (the young man in this case) to marry and breed children in order to overcome mortality, as will be seen later on in the paper.1

To sum up, William Shakespeare wrote in total 38 dramas, two erotic narrative poems and a sonnet cycle of 154 poems (titled SHAKESPEARE'S Sonnets Never before printed, including the narrative poem “A Lover's Complaints”).2

There follows an analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnet 12. I want to show in my paper how the poet structures the sonnet and which poetic devices he employs to represent the theme of beauty and the effects of time.


1 “William Shakespeare Biography.“ [Online]. AbsoluteShakespeare.com. [2010, August 26].

2 cf: Nunez, Jardena (1998). “Short Biography.” Shakespeare. [Online] [2010, August, 26]



Sonnet No. 12 by William Shakespeare


1. When I do count the clock that tells the time,

2. And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;

3. When I behold the violet past prime,

4. And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;


5. When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,

6. Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,

7. And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves

8. Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;


9. Then of thy .....[read full text]

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3.   Theme


This sonnet is one of Shakespeare’s so called “procreation sonnets”. The speaker first goes through images of death and mortality and at the turn (line 9) he tells the addressee that he has to get along with the run of the events. The only way he can fight time is to father descendants.4

4.   General Structure

A Shakespearean/English sonnet traditionally consists of 14 iambic pentameters linked by a specific rhyme scheme. It falls into three quatrains (stanzas of four lines) ending with a concluding heroic couplet (stanza of two lines) at the end.5
The rhyme scheme is alternating:

First quatrain: a b a b
Second quatrain: c d c d
Third quatrain: e f e f
Couplet (Turn): g g

As in all Shakespearean sonnets the quatrains assume an important role, the first two quatrains “begin with “when .” describing a situation, followed by “then…” in the third quatrain pointing out a result which is concluded by an solution in the concluding couplet.


5.   Rhythm and Metre

As already mentioned the metre of sonnet No. 12 is an iambic pentameter. That means that each line consists of 5 syllables, always an unstressed one followed by a stressed one. 6

4 cf. “Some Introductory Notes To The Sonnets.“ [Online]. Oxquarry Books Ltd. [2010, August 26].
5 “Sonnet”. [Online]. Wikipedia the free encyclopedia.
. [2010, August 28].
6 Nünning, Vera und Ansgar (2009). An Introduction to the Study of English and American Literature. Stuttgart: K.....

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In addition to the alliteration, Shakespeare also uses internal rhymes as in line 8: “Borne on the beare with white and bristly beard” (is also the ending of the metaphor of the whole quatrain), such as in line 5: “When lofty trees I see barren of leaves”.


7 cf. Beck, Rudolf et al.(2007).Basislexikon anglistische Literaturwissenschaft. Wilhelm Fink Verlag. 187.

7.   Rhetorical Figures on the Semantic Level


Sonnet 12 starts with a metonymy in the phrase: “the clock that tells the time”, which characteizes the passing time. In line two we can find two anthropomorphizing metaphors: “the brave day sunk in hideous night”, where brave day and hideous night symbolically refer to life and death.
In the next line the word “violet” is used for the flower, not the color.

In the whole phrase: “the violet past prime”, the violet is a symbol for the spring, which is now over or went by so fast.
The following line even emphasizes the image of the fast passing time: “sable curls, all silver’d o’er with white”.
In line 5, second quatrain, Shakespeare uses a metaphor to signal the process of ageing: “trees barren of leaves”. The image implies he process of human ageing, which includes the loss of hair or wrinkled skin.

The whole quatrain describes the coming fall, e.g.: the falling leaves and the harvesting of crops.8 Also the word white is repeated, which refers to old peoples’ white hair, pale skin, and maybe even heaven. That means that in this quatrain the transiency of nature is transferred to that of humans. There follows a turn, where the lyric “I” addresses the .....

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Or maybe the lyric “I” (the older and wiser one of the two lyric personas) cautions the addressee not to forsake his beauty by not taking good enough care of himself.
This conclusion is typical for Shakespeare’s procreation sonnets (sonnet 1-17). The only way to overcome mortality can always only be reached trough marriage and fatherhood.10


8.   Conclusion


Let me in conclusion, sum up the basic argumentative structure of the sonnet: in lines 1-4 Shakespeare expresses the fast change of time very strongly. In every line he refers to another kind of passing time, hierarchically organized. In the first it is the hour (the clock that tells the time), followed by the daytime that passes by (brave day sunk in hideous night).

The third line refers to the seasons of a year, in this case it is springtime (the violet past prime) and finally it comes to lifetime (curls all silver’s o’er with white).
In the second quatrain he gives examples for signs of the passing of time in nature (lofty trees-barren of leaves, summers green, heat did canopy the herd…). Afterwards in the third quatrain he finally refers to human existence.

Beauty, Sweetness, everything goes bad; everything is going to die, step by step.
And finally it comes to death and the one and only solution that the lyric “I” sees for the lyric “t.....

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Nunez, Jardena (1998). “Short Biography.” Shakespeare. [Online] [2010, August, 26]

Posener, Alan (1995/2007). William Shakespeare. 2. Auflage. Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag. 82-86.

“Some Introductory Notes To The Sonnets.“ [Online]. Oxquarry Books Ltd. [2010, August 26].

“Sonnet”. [Online]. Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. . [2010, August 28].

Nünning, Vera und Ansgar (2009). An Introduction to the Study of English and American Literature. Stuttgart: Klett Lerntraining. 58-59.

Beck, Rudolf et al.(2007).Basislexikon anglistische Literaturwissenschaft. Wilhelm Fink Verlag. 187.

Posener, Alan (1995/2007). William Shakespeare. 2. Auflage. Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.

“Death Personification” [Online]. Wikipedia free encyclopedia. [2010, July 28].

Posener, Alan (1995/2007). William Shakespeare. 2. Auflage. Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.

Mabillard, Amanda. (2000, Aug. 20). “Sonnet 12” Shakespeare Online. [Online] [201.....


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