Sonnet 16

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Sonnet 16

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time's pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

–William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Sonnet 16 is another of his procreation sonnets, this one continued from Sonnet 15 with which it forms a diptych (Note Sonnet 16 starts with "But...). In it, the speaker asks the young man why he does not actively fight against time and age by having a child.


Why don't you fight time with weapons more powerful than my poetry? Right now you are in your prime, and many women would be willing to bear you a child, who would copy you better than any work of art. The life of your child would renew your own beyond my own power (Lines 9-12 are doubtful and contested). Giving your self away (that is, in marriage and procreation) will allow you to keep yourself (in life), and only your own skill can cause this to happen.

Source and analysis[edit]

The sonnet is a syntactical and thematic continuation of 15. Interpretation of the sonnet hinges on the third quatrain, generally regarded as obscure. Edmond Malone suggested that "lines of life" refers to children, with a pun on line as bloodline. This reading was accepted by Edward Dowden and others. Line 10 is equally obscure, with the connection of "this" to "Time's pencil" and "my pupil pen" (the latter phrase George Steevens regarded as evidence that Shakespeare wrote his sonnets as a youth; for T. W. Baldwin, the phrase connects this sonnet to The Rape of Lucrece). While in general terms "Time" is in this line a form of artist (rather than a destroyer, as elsewhere in the cycle), its exact function is unclear. The second half of the quatrain completes the assertion that procreation is a more viable route to immortality than the "counterfeit" of art. Following William Empson, Stephen Booth points out that all of the potential readings of this disputed quatrain are potentially accurate: while the lines do not establish a single meaning, the reader understands in general terms the usual theme, the contrast between artistic and genealogical immortality.



  • Alden, Raymond (1916). The Sonnets of Shakespeare, with Variorum Reading and Commentary. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston.
  • Baldwin, T. W. (1950). On the Literary Genetics of Shakspeare's Sonnets. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
  • Booth, Stephen (1977). Shakespeare's Sonnets. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  • Dowden, Edward (1881). Shakespeare's Sonnets. London.
  • Empson, William (1975). Seven Types of Ambiguity. Vintage, New York.
  • Hubler, Edwin (1952). The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  • Schoenfeldt, Michael (2007). The Sonnets: The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry. Patrick Cheney, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Tyler, Thomas (1989). Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London D. Nutt.
  • Vendler, Helen (1997). The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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