When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
This sonnet takes up again the theme of time's swift passage, and the destruction of all things. The thought behind it is universal, and the usual antecedents quoted are Horace's odes (exegi monumentum aere perennius - I have built a monument that is more lasting than bronze (i.e. my poems)) and Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
The poet records his reactions to seeing the elaborate monuments to the dead in churches, which, however rich and costly, are subject to decay and destruction. And to the gradual effect of change on sea and land. This prompts him to consider that his beloved will also be subject to the same forces, a thought which adds a deep sadness to the unclouded joy of loving.
The theme is the universal one of the passage of time and the ravages of decay as they affect human life. Literary influences which could have shaped Shakespeare's thinking on the matter date back to the bible (e.g. Ecclessiastes) as well as ancient Greek and Roman authors, many of whom were available in translation. Often quoted in this context is Horace, who ended one of his books of odes with the claim
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
Regalique situ pyramidum altius,
Quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
Possit diruere, aut innumerabilis
Annorum series et fuga temporum.
I have built a monument more lasting than bronze,
Loftier than the pyramids on their regal throne,
Which neither the wasting rain nor the North wind in its fury
Could ever raze to the ground, nor the innumerable
Sequence of the years, nor the swift feet of time. Odes III.30
Obviously there are some echoes here which Sh. could have picked up, although it must be stated that the aes (abl. aere) of Horace might be more properly translated as bronze, since Horace would probably be referring to Roman imperial statuary, whereas Sh. would have in mind brasses set into the floor of churches. Commentators have picked on Horace partly because of the reference to 'brass eternal' in l.4. Be that as it may, this particular ode of Horace deals with the power of poetry to immortalize the poet, which is somewhat far removed from the theme of Sonnet 64, being more appropriate to 18, 19, 55, 60. Although even in those sonnets it is not the poet who is to be immortalised, rather it is the loved one of whom he sings. One of the lasting images of Shakespeare's sonnets is that of his own unworthiness as a poet, (as an unperfect actor on the stage, ... these poor rude lines of thy deceased lover; etc., ) The imagery in this particular sonnet does not correspond with the oft quoted ode of Horace. Not that Horace in his other poems is necessarily far from the thought expressed, for there are equally well known verses: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,/ Labuntur anni -- Alas Postumus, how the years slide past, for all your piety and devotion will not hold back the wrinkles, nor impending old age, nor death which is unconquerable. II 14.; and Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turres -- Pale death with indifferent foot kicks down the door of poor men's hovels and the palaces of kings I 4. Even as a poor Latinist (if that is what he was) Sh. would have known something of these verses.
As also he would have known Ovid, in Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses.
Even so have places oftentymes exchaunged theyr estate. / For I have seen it sea which was substanciall ground alate, /Ageine where sea was, I have seene the same become dry londe, ...
This obviously echoes ll.5-8, even though we do not necessarily need to see a direct connection. Such thoughts of change, decay and mortality were the common property of poets of the age, if not of all ages. Perhaps more especially so for those living in cities as large as London at that time. For London could be, at any time, and frequently was, stricken by the plague, causing mortality rates to rise dramatically, forcing theatres to close, and promoting a general exodus. It involved no great stretch of the imagination for Sh. to see himself, or his beloved, as one of the victims of the next calamity.
What makes the great difference in this poem from those quoted, and from many others which touch upon the same or similar thoughts, is the way Sh. expresses these intimations of mortality, in the language which he uses, in the imagery drawn from what he saw around him in his surroundings, and in the direct impact which he perceived his forebodings would have on his love affair with the beloved addressee of the sonnets.
Let us however stick to the more especial matters of exegesis which need to be addressed. The first four lines of the sonnet contain references not to the general passage of time and its destructiveness but to particular elements of that destruction. Thus defaced, lofty towers, brass, mortal rage have references beyond the immediate generality of all things dying and decaying .
1. "defaced" was an almost technical term for the destruction of "images" in churches - e.g. white-washing of the walls to do away with mural paintings. One thinks also of the defacement and destruction of statues and images, which has been undertaken by religous zealots of one persuasion or another over the centuries, in this country, but also in many in Europe. It is not uncommon to come across statues in churches in all countries with badly mauled faces, witnesses to the fanaticism of earlier times.
2. "lofty towers" suggests monastic belfries, although perhaps more the very late development in line with the kind of architecture which went into the so-called wool churches of the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
3. "brass eternal" in a church context suggests the ornamental brasses on the floors of churches. Mortal rage would be evidenced by the energy/zeal with which they were detached from their anchorages and then hauled away to be melted down. The anger of the reformers is transient (mortal) in contrast to the "eternal" brass, a suggestion that the brass represents more than mere metallic longevity. Eamon Duffy in his Stripping of the Altars says that brasses were sold in their hundredweights from 1548 onwards. NB the contrast between suggested "natural causes" in the first line and deliberate destruction of a nasty kind in l.4. (G. Blakemore-Evans thinks that the reference is to the wear and tear on the brasses by parishoners' feet. NCS Sonnets p.171.)***
Other than these historic and actual events there are the descriptions of elemental forces at work, the sea eating away at the land, the land regaining lost territory, and these elemental forces seem to overtake the human world of states and governments. But even the word 'state' one should be careful not to interpret too narrowly, for it must have overtones also of the essence or condition of things in general. In fact the Arden edition gives 'alternation or vicissitude of condition' as the primary meaning of interchange of state (p248) and allocates a possible political meaning to it only secondarily.
Finally, the curious usage this thought is as a death in l.13, which it is difficult to give an obvious meaning to, prompts me to make the suggestion that there is a direct reference to death from the plague, a recurring feature of London life up to 1610. One would be perpetually fearing that precious friends would succumb, and that one would weep to have those whom one feared to lose. Everything was at the random mercy of this fearsome slayer, which descended without warning from year to year. Living in our comfortable age of medicines, universal health and welfare, it is difficult to think ourselves back into those times when disease and early death were the norm, and the beauty of youth was even more transient and vulnerable than it is today.
***For these three suggestions I am indebted to Dr. T. Merriam.
The 1609 Quarto Version
WHen I haue ſeene by times fell hand defaced
The rich proud coſt of outworne buried age,
When ſometime loftie towers I ſee downe raſed,
And braſſe eternall ſlaue to mortall rage.
When I haue ſeene the hungry Ocean gaine
Aduantage on the Kingdome of the ſhoare,
And the firme ſoile win of the watry maine,
Increaſing ſtore with loſſe,and loſſe with ſtore.
When I haue ſeene ſuch interchange of ſtate,
Or ſtate it ſelfe confounded, to decay,
Ruine hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my loue away.
This thought is as a death which cannot chooſe
But weepe to haue,that which it feares to looſe.