I am progressing through Shakespeare’s Sonnets, in order, so it seems.
Lo, in the Orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage.
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, 'fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way.
So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.
Once again, we have the voice of the poem urging the “Fair Youth” to have a child. Here, as Shakespeare has done in the proceeding Sonnets, the downside of refraining from procreation is illustrated by highlighting the subject’s virtues, but reminding him that such virtues are transitory. As we have also seen in the earlier poems, the reader is reminded that youth, though a wondrous thing, will eventually fade. Thus, the only way to maintain vitality, glory and life is through one’s decedents.
In this entry the path of the Sun in the sky is used as the allegory. What I think is interesting is the fact that the glory of the Sun is less praised than is the esteem that people in general have for the ascending orb. We are told, “each under eye Doth homage to his new-appearing sight, Serving with looks his sacred majesty.”
As per the theme of the work, as the magnificent Sun passes the noon hour and begins to set, the esteem of the world will inevitably fade, “The eyes, 'fore duteous, now converted are From his low tract and look another way.”
As I do with many aspects of the Sonnets, I find this to be a bit odd. The regard of the world is portrayed as fickle and transitory. It sets with the movement of the sun and thus also diminishes as an individual ages. Yet, the voice of the poem urges the subject of the poem to retain the favor of people who are so inconsistent. This favor will be obtained by creating another youth in the form of a son (it seems that the pun IS intended).
Taking a leap beyond the Sonnets, I also think that Shakespeare often shows distrust in the accolades of the masses. For instance, it seems to me that the valor of Henry V hid demagoguery, and the heights that Othello reached only made his fall that much harder.
So, what is one to make of this voice that urges the youth to procreate for such questionable motivations? This brings up an issue that I have only touched upon in some of my earlier posts. That is, one may suspect that the voice of the poem is not Shakespeare at all. Perhaps one can consider this speaker to be another one of the great poet’s characters. Such an interpretation certainly solves numerous other issues presented in the “Fair Youth” Sonnets. A Google search indicates lots of varying opinions as to what the intentions of these works are.
If we do assume that the voice of the poem is not Shakespeare, then it seems easier to label it as more than a little desperate. This is a persona that is willing to say anything and make any argument, even if faulty, in order to convince the “Fair Youth” to procreate. Of course, this line of reasoning leaves open the question as to why.
I am not so confident as to throw out this hypothesis as a definitive solution. Instead, I just put it out as an interesting possibility based on what I think of as circumstantial evidence.
A final word on this Sonnet: Regardless of Shakespeare’s intentions, I find the imagery here, that of a magnificent sun on the ascent and then eventually on the descent, to be particularly pleasing. When such a picture is wedded to the idea of a human life and it’s stages, the result is itself glorious.
My commentary on additional Sonnets: