At this year’s Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam, where all 154 sonnets are performed, because of no-shows, producer Melinda Hall unexpectedly pressed some of us into double duty bound; in addition to performing our pre-arranged sonnets (mine was Sonnet 27) we performed other sonnets as well, with fifteen minutes notice.
And that is how I became acquainted with Sonnet 126. Here’s what I saw when the paper was handed to me:
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy pow’r
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour,
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st—
If Nature, (sovereign mistress over wrack,)
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose: that her skill
May Time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure;
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure.
Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
If this looks strange to you, you’re on the right track. It looks very different from all the other Shakespeare sonnets. As you probably know if you’re reading this, the Shakespearean sonnets are three quatrains of alternating rhyme, and then a final couplet to make fourteen lines. Now take a look at Sonnet 126—first of all it’s only twelve lines long—the last two lines seem to have been truncated—and what’s more the remaining lines are all couplets. It barely deserves to be called a sonnet. And, to my way of thinking, the content of it is more pessimistic than most of Shakespeare’s other sonnets.
Ever-reliable Wikipedia tells us that Sonnet 126 is the capstone to the group of sonnets known as the Fair Youth sonnets. As a group they speak of a young man of sexual power who, despite the ravages of time, will live on—either through his immortalization in the poet’s words, or through the siring of offspring. Sonnet 126 is the last of this group, but it appears to tell a somewhat different story: our Fair Youth might think, even as he gets older, that he is cheating Nature and Time in his pursuit of worldly pleasures, but it is all for naught. In the end, Time demands his due, despite Nature’s endowing the Youth with potency even in his later years—no, Nature must eventually render thee; that is, surrender him, as money paid in debt. Indeed, the end comes so suddenly, it can even come two lines too early. We have run out of Time.
It’s a bleaker outlook than many of the other sonnets. While Shakespeare never denies the inevitability of death in his writings, it is rare that he wags it so forcefully in the face of his sonnet subjects without some promise of remembrance. There’s a palpable jealousy there of the youth’s enduring power. There doesn’t seem to be a chance of redemption.
And yet, hidden within the last words is a double meaning that seems kinder. For the word render not only means “to surrender,” but also “to depict,” as in the rendering of a portrait. Nature may not only surrender him to Time, but will portray him. So once again, the Fair Youth has the opportunity of becoming immortal through his children or through Shakespeare’s rendering of him in his poems.
And so he has.