SONNET 2: When forty winters shall besiege thy brow When forty winters shall beseige thy brow, And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field, Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now, Will be a tatter'd weed, of small worth held: Then being ask'd where all thy beauty lies, Where all the treasure of thy lusty days; To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes, Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise. How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use, If thou couldst answer 'This fair child of mine Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,' Proving his beauty by succession thine! This were to be new made when thou art old, And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold. — William Shakespeare
The poem, as a lyric, treats the question of beauty, addressing someone not directly mentioned to make “the beauty field” count. This suggests the visible beautiful appearance of the addressee.
In the first quatrain, the poet tells his addressee the reality of the beauty he possesses now. He (the poet) says this beautiful face will become “a tatter’d weed, of small worth held” “when forty winters shall besiege they brow”.
“Forty winters” is the symbolism for old age. Therefore, at old age, one’s beauty will fade away as time wears on. Wrinkles will announce the addressee’s rounding off of his time and his “youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now” will retreat into the folding of the skin at the onset of ageing. This is to admonish that facial beauty will fade away eventually and there will be nothing to flaunt again.
In the second quatrain, the poet goes on saying that these “lusty days” will end up as “an all-eating shame and thriftless praise”. This is to say that the person addressed here will eventually admit “the treasure” of his “lusty days” is vanity. This is the dismal reality of physical beauty: at old age, the frenzy of youthfulness will go sour. The assonance of “shame…praise” in this line 8 suggests the soft and uninvited ‘penetration’ of vanity.
However, in the third quatrain, the poet resolves his arousal of his addressee’s consciousness that “How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use/If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine/Shall sum my count and make my old excuse” (l. 9-11).
Here, the poet speaks of procreation. That procreation is the reward of beauty. Our “lusty days” can only be rewarded with whom we have produced. Succession is the effervescence of life. Children are the glory of old age.
Figuratively, the poem generally adopts an omniscient undertone to address the subject of time. How we spend our life while we still have our hair black; what we do with our youth; the succession of our summer years is the reward of our “forty Winters”, a symbol used by the poet to mean old age. On a closer scrutiny, ‘This fair child…’ is the laurels of one’s days. What one has done to be remembered for.
Structurally, the poem is a typical English/Shakespearean Sonnet with the rhyme scheme ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG. It is divided – not distinct stanzas, though – into three quatrains and a heroic couplet.
It is written in iambic pentameter and that rhythm sets the poem to the tone of meditation. And in that wise, the mood of reflection dominates the poem. This fluidity of sound is significant here: it gives authentication to the subject matter as a universal address. It is an admonition to all ‘Beauty’ to make the time count so when old age, the “forty Winters shall” come, they will have a thing of joy to show for it.