Sonnet 17

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Sonnet 17

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill'd with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say 'This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne'er touch'd earthly faces.'
So should my papers, yellow'd with their age,
Be scorn'd, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term'd a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme.

–William Shakespeare

Sonnet 17 is one of 154 sonnets written by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. It is the final poem of the openning procreation sonnets within the Fair Youth sequence.

The sonnet questions the poet's descriptions of the young man, believing that future generations will see them as exaggerations if the youth does not make a copy of himself by fathering a child. As in Sonnet 130, Shakespeare shows himself to be hesitant about self-assured, flamboyant, and flowery proclamations of beauty.

Synopsis and analysis[edit]

The poet asks who would believe his verse in the future (“in time to come”), if the youth’s true excellence (“most high deserts”) were to "fill" his verse. The poet’s verse is inadequate; “heaven knows” is either an exclamation or part of the sentence: ‘heaven knows that his verse is but a tomb’ (with a hint of ‘tome’).[1][2] Shakespeare even goes as far as to say that the "tomb" hides half the youth's beauty.

Shakespeare argues that his descriptions are not strong enough, and they do not do justice to the man's beauty ("If I could write the beauty of your eyes"). Again, if the poet could number all the youth’s graces in “fresh numbers,” then future times would accuse him of falsehood. Future ages would say, “this poet lies; / Such heavenly touches ne'et touch'd earthly faces.” “Such heavenly touches” were the divine touches traditionally bestowed by the Muses on the poet, or they are the strokes of the brush or chisel of a divinely inspired hand, which, having ‘touched’ an earthly face, makes it perfect.[2]

As in Sonnet 85 Shakespeare’s precedent is a phrase from Horace’s Satires, “ad unguem / factus homo” (Sermones 1.5.32) ‘it is the touch that perfects the man,’ which was an expression from carvers who in modelling gave the finishing touch to their work with the nail (“unguem”).[2] A future age, believing that such divine perfection could never (“ne'er”) happen, would think the poet’s efforts exaggeration. Shakespeare insists that his comparisons, even though they are limited in strength, are not exaggerations.

The poet's manuscripts (“my papers”), once they are discolored (“yellowed”) with age, will be the subject of ridicule (“scorn’d"), just as “old men of less truth then tongue” are derided. What the youth is truly owed (“your true rights”) could be dismissed in the future as “a poet's rage,” or rejected as the “stretched metre of an antique song”; “stretched” firstly intends ‘exaggerated,’ but was used technically of earlier poetic styles.[2] “Antique song” is both ancient and distorted (‘antic’) song. The sonnet ends with a typical notion that should the young man have a child, he shall live both in the child and in the poet's rhyme.



  1. ^ Booth, Stephen (1977). "Sonnet 83". Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press. 
  2. ^ a b c d Larsen, Kenneth J.. "Sonnet 17". Essays on Shakespeare's Sonnets. Retrieved 28 November 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • Dowden, Edward (1881). Shakespeare's Sonnets. London.
  • 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.

External links[edit]