Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws,
Sonnet 19 is one of 154 sonnets written by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare and is considered by some to be the final sonnet of the initial procreation sequence. The sonnet addresses time directly with the instruction to destroy its own weapons and to leave Shakespeare's beloved, the fair youth, unscathed. The theme is redemption, through art, of time's inevitable decay.
Synopsis and analysis
Sonnet 19 addresses time directly as “Devouring Time,” a translation of the often-used phrase from Ovid, “tempus edax” (Met. 15.258). G. Wilson Knight notes and analyzes the way in which devouring time is developed by trope in the first 19 sonnets. Jonathan Hart notes the reliance of Shakespeare's treatment on tropes from not only Ovid but also Edmund Spenser.
The sonnet consists of a series of imperatives, where time is commanded to disempower its own instruments: it must “blunt . . the lion's paws;” it must force mother earth (“her”) to “devour” her children (“own sweet brood"). Time is ordered to pull (“pluck”) the tiger’s “keen teeth,” its ‘eager,’ its ‘sharp,’ and its ‘fierce’ teeth from the jaw of a tiger. The quarto's "yawes" was amended to "jaws" by Edward Capell and Edmond Malone; this change is now almost universally accepted.
Fourthly, and impossibly, time is required to “burn the long-liv'd phoenix, in her blood.” The phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. George Steevens glosses "in her blood" as "burned alive" by analogy with Coriolanus (4.6.85); Nicolaus Delius has the phrase "while still standing."
As time speeds by ("fleet'st", although variations in early modern spelling allow “flee’st” as in ‘time flies’ or ‘tempus fugit’), it must vary the seasons (“make glad and sorry seasons”), which are not only cycles of nature but ups and downs of human moods. The penultimate command verges on the careless or dismissive: “do what ere thou wilt.” The epithet “swift-footed time” was commonplace, as was “the wide world”.
Finally the poet denies time a singular, most grievous sin (“one most hainous crime”). It must “carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow”. In associating crime and wrinkles Shakespeare has drawn on Ovid again, “de rugis crimina multa cadunt” (‘from wrinkles many crimes are exposed’ from Amores 1.8.46), rendered by Christopher Marlowe as “wrinckles in beauty is a grieuous fault". The hours must not etch into the beloved’s brow any wrinkle (compare Sonnet 63, “When hours have .. fill'd his brow / With lines and wrinkles”). Nor must time’s “antique pen,” both its ‘ancient’ and its ‘antic’ or crazy pen, “draw . . lines there”.
Time must allow the youth to remain “untainted” in its “course”; one meaning of “untainted” (from tangere = to touch) is ‘untouched’ or ‘unaffected’ by the course of time. The couplet dismisses time’s efforts (“Yet do thy worst old Time”). Whatever injuries or faults (“wrongs”) time might commit, the poet’s “love,” both his affection and the beloved, will prevail in the poet’s lines (“verse”) as ever fresh and never growing old (“ever live young”). Henry Charles Beeching perceives a valediction in the final line, meant to indicate that the opening group of sonnets ends here.
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- Vendler, Helen (1997). The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Works related to Sonnet_19_(Shakespeare) at Wikisource
- Paraphrase and analysis (Shakespeare-online)