The first two lines of Sonnet 17 in the 1609 Quarto
Sonnet 17 is one of 154 sonnets written by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. It is the final poem of what are referred to by scholars as the procreation sonnets (Sonnets 1-17) with which the Fair Youth sequence opens.
Sonnet 17 questions the poet's descriptions of the sequence's young man, believing that future generations will see these descriptions 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.
Sonnet 17 is an English or Shakespearean sonnet, consisting of three quatrains followed by a couplet. It follows the form's typical rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. Sonnet 17 is written in iambic pentameter, a form of meter based on five pairs of metrically weak/strong syllabic positions. The sonnet's fourth line exemplifies a regular iambic pentameter:
× / × / × / × / × / Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts. (17.4)
- / = ictus, a metrically strong syllabic position. × = nonictus. (×) = extrametrical syllable.
The sixth line exhibits two fairly common variations, a final extrametrical syllable or feminine ending, and the rightward movement of the first ictus (the resulting four-position figure,
× × / /, is sometimes referred to as a minor ionic):
× × / / × / × / × /(×) And in fresh numbers number all your graces, (17.6)
The twelfth line features a mimetic stretching into two syllables of the word "stretched" to fit the metre:
× / × / × / × / × / And stretchèd metre of an antique song: (17.12)
Synopsis and analysis
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'). 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 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'er 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.
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"). 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. "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.
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- Booth, Stephen (1977). Sonnet 83. Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Larsen, Kenneth J. "Sonnet 17". Essays on Shakespeare's Sonnets. Retrieved 28 November 2014.
- Baldwin, T. W. (1950). On the Literary Genetics of Shakspeare's Sonnets. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
- 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.
- First edition and facsimile
- Shakespeare, William (1609). Shake-speares Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted. London: Thomas Thorpe.
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1905). Shakespeares Sonnets: Being a reproduction in facsimile of the first edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 458829162.
- Variorum editions
- Alden, Raymond Macdonald, ed. (1916). The Sonnets of Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. OCLC 234756.
- Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. (1944). A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Sonnets [2 Volumes]. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. OCLC 6028485.
- Modern critical editions
- Atkins, Carl D., ed. (2007). Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-4163-7. OCLC 86090499.
- Booth, Stephen, ed. (2000) [1st ed. 1977]. Shakespeare's Sonnets (Rev. ed.). New Haven: Yale Nota Bene. ISBN 0-300-01959-9. OCLC 2968040.
- Burrow, Colin, ed. (2002). The Complete Sonnets and Poems. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0192819338. OCLC 48532938.
- Duncan-Jones, Katherine, ed. (2010) [1st ed. 1997]. Shakespeare's Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series (Rev. ed.). London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-4080-1797-5. OCLC 755065951.
- Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. (1996). The Sonnets. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521294034. OCLC 32272082.
- Kerrigan, John, ed. (1995) [1st ed. 1986]. The Sonnets ; and, A Lover's Complaint. New Penguin Shakespeare (Rev. ed.). Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-070732-8. OCLC 15018446.
- Mowat, Barbara A.; Werstine, Paul, eds. (2006). Shakespeare's Sonnets & Poems. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Washington Square Press. ISBN 978-0743273282. OCLC 64594469.
- Orgel, Stephen, ed. (2001). The Sonnets. The Pelican Shakespeare (Rev. ed.). New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0140714531. OCLC 46683809.
- Vendler, Helen, ed. (1997). The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-63712-7. OCLC 36806589.