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).
The 1609 Quarto Version
TO me faire friend you neuer can be old,
For as you were when firſt your eye I eyde,
Such ſeemes your beautie ſtill:Three Winters colde,
Haue from the forreſts ſhooke three ſummers pride,
Three beautious ſprings to yellow Autumne turn’d,
In proceſſe of the ſeaſons haue I ſeene,
Three Aprill perfumes in three hot Iunes burn’d,
Since firſt I ſaw you freſh which yet are greene.
Ah yet doth beauty like a Dyall hand,
Steale from his figure,and no pace perceiu’d,
So your ſweete hew,which me thinkes ſtill doth ſtand
Hath motion,and mine eye may be deceaued.
For feare of which,heare this thou age vnbred,
Ere you were borne was beauties ſummer dead.
1. To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
Perhaps this line responds to the suggestions in the previous sonnets that the mirror is beginning to show lines and wrinkles in the beloved’s face. Or perhaps it is intended as a reassuring declaration by the poet, that for him nothing will change, despite the transience of the world all around him. It may have sprung from private conversations, and from comments made by the young man. In substance it foreshadows the famous declaration of faith of Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
2. For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
when first your eye I eyed = when I first set eyes on you, when I first looked into your face. The repetition of sound (ay ay ayed) is considered by some commentators to be puerile. (See however the comment of HV, p.442). In any case it is the sort of linguistic device which rather amused and challenged Elizabethan writers. Compare No.5 in Drayton’s Sonnet Sequence ‘Idea’:, published first in 1599.
Nothing but ‘No’! and ‘I’! and ‘I’! and ‘No’!.
The complete sonnet is given below at the bottom of the page.
3. Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold,
seems = appears, is. The use of seems seems innocent enough, until one remembers the use of the glass (mirror) in the previous sonnet, and the suspicions that Shakespeare attaches to ‘seeming’ in contrast to ‘being’. Perhaps the beauty which seems so beauteous is not really so, but is already corrupted by lines and wrinkles, and perhaps by moral decay. The sudden introduction of three winters cold at the end of the line is like an icy shock which brings one back to reality, and challenges the already shaky assurance of such seems your beauty still.
cold – this is usually taken to be an adjective, viz. ‘three cold winters’, but it could also be read as a noun, the meaning being ‘the successive cold of three winters’.
4. Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
summer’s pride = the glorious growth of summer. pride is often associated in the sonnets with a rich appearance. (See 25, 52, 80, 99). These two lines echo those from Horace
hic tertius December (ex quo destiti
Inachia furere), silvis honorem decutit.
See the introduction above.
5. Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned,
Autumn is characterised by the colour of yellow. Compare:
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 73
Nowadays we tend to think of the colours more as tan and russet, especially the autumn leaves. Shakespeare may have been thinking more of the gold of the cornfields.
6. In process of the seasons have I seen,
This line can be read either as a continuation of the previous one, or as introductory to that which follows.
In process of = in the progress of (OED 1.a.) The word is close to the modern usage of ‘procession’.
7. Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
See the comments on three in the introductory notes. The perfumes of the spring are burned dry by the heat of the summer.
8. Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Since first I saw you fresh – perhaps similar in meaning to since first your eye I eyed, although here the emphasis is on the youth’s freshness and vigour, which still remains unaltered.
which yet are = who still remains, who is still;
green – at times this can have a slightly pejorative meaning, or carries a hint of foolish innocence. Compare Cleopatra commenting on her youthful days:
……………..My salad days
When I was green in judgement, cold in blood,
To say as I said then. AC.I.5.73-5.
Here however the emphasis seems to be on freshness and vigour, as in the lush growth of springtime.
9. Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,
a dial hand = the hand on a clock dial. Many clocks of the Elizabethan age only had an hour hand, which would appear to move even more imperceptibly than the minute hand.
10. Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
Steal from his figure = move stealthily away from the number which it appears to be pointing to.
his = its.
no pace perceived = no movement is noticeable or perceptible.
9-10 The reference may have been to a sundial. the meanings given here are for a clock face.
11. So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
hue = colour, facial appearance, as in Sonn. 20
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling
which methinks = which I think, which I am inclined to think;
still doth stand = remains motionless; or, is still as it was (when I first saw you).
12. Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:
Hath motion = is actually moving;
mine eye = my eye, my perceptions.
13. For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred:
For fear of which – i.e. fearing this, (that you are in fact ageing rapidly but imperceptibly).
thou age unbred – the age yet unborn. Perhaps with a hint of ‘you uncouth ages yet to be!’, since unbred could imply lack of breeding, coming from poor stock.
14. Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
Ere you were born = before you, the forthcoming age, were yet born.
beauty’s summer = beauty in its prime, in its full glory, i.e., the beloved youth, (was already dead). I.e. you will never have any chance of seeing what true beauty is like.
Michael Drayton’s ‘Idea. In Sixty Three Sonnets’ was published first in 1594, and in various curtailed or augmented editions until the final edition of 1619. This sonnet appeared in the 1599 edition. It is reprinted here from Sidney Lee, Elizabethan Sonnets, An English Garner, Westminster, 1904, Vol II, p.183.
Because they are so much in the forefront of our awareness, we tend to assume that Shakespeare’s Sonnets set the norm for the time. This is definitely not so and for the first use of many of the quirks and curiosities of the genre one must look beyond the Shakespearian canon to see how the Sonneteers contemporary with him were developing and expanding the form.
Nothing but ‘No’! and ‘I’! and ‘I’! and ‘No’!.
‘How falls it out so strangely?’, you reply.
I tell ye Fair! I’ll not be answered so!
With this affirming ‘No’!, denying ‘I’!
I say ‘I love’! You slightly answer ‘I’!
I say ‘You love’! You pule me out a ‘No’!.
I say ‘I die’! You echo me with ‘I’!
‘Save me’! I cry; you sigh me out a ‘No’!.
Must Woe and I have naught but ‘No’ ! and ‘I’! ?
No ‘I’! am I if I no more can have.
Answer no more. With silence make reply,
And let me take myself what I do crave.
Let ‘No’! and ‘I’! with I and you be so,
Then answer ‘No’! and ‘I’! and ‘I’! and ‘No’!