O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time's fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein showest
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self growest.
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 minutes 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.
Dante Gabriel Rosetti wrote in 1882 "There should be an essential reform in the printing of Shakespeare's sonnets. After sonnet CXXV should occur the words End of Part I. The couplet piece, numbered CXXVI, should be called Epilogue to Part I. Then, before CXXVII, should be printed Part II. After CLII should be put End of Part II - and the last two sonnets should be called Epilogue to Part II."
A Renaissance reader would perhaps be expected to discover these points by an attentive reading of the sonnets, and by knowing what to look for within the conventions of sonneteering. It is in fact generally agreed nowadays that this is a farewell sonnet, and that it brings to a close the main group of sonnets addressed to the fair youth. It does not follow the pattern of the other sonnets, being a series of six rhyming couplets, although it still gives the overall impression of being constructed in quatrains, and of having a concluding couplet. The reason for the bracketed blank lines in the original publication is not known, but some suggestions are discussed in the notes below.
The poet addresses the youth in loving terms and surveys the years of his growing older. It appears that his ageing has augmented his own beauty, and by doing so it has also emphasised the deterioration and decay of his admirers. Nature has been in love with him and has sequestered him away from the ravages of time. Yet she cannot do so forever, and soon must yield him up and give an account of how she has used her treasure. The settling of the account is perhaps something to be dreaded, and the poet is solicitous for his beloved.
Echoing down the centuries there is in these lines what Wordsworth called
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. Tintern 91-3.
They seem to express not so much a tiredness of love, as a fond farewell, a willingness to look back and see how much the heart has aged and how much it has learned from its experiences. It realises that it can no longer be moved by the same depth of passion, but it can be grateful that the chance was given it to love and to drink to the full the cup that was offered at the love feast. The mysteries of love remain, and will always remain, but Cupid for a while lays aside his arrows, and the love God sleeps.
The 1609 Quarto Version
OThou my louely Boy who in thy power,
Doeſt hould times fickle glaſſe,his ſickle,hower:
Who haſt by wayning growne,and therein ſhou'ſt,
Thy louers withering,as thy ſweet ſelfe grow'ſt.
If Nature(ſoueraine miſteres ouer wrack)
As thou goeſt onwards ſtill will plucke thee backe,
She keepes thee to this purpoſe,that her ſkill.
May time diſgrace,and wretched mynuit kill.
Yet feare her O thou minnion of her pleaſure,
She may detaine,but not ſtill keepe her treſure!
Her Audite(though delayd)anſwer'd muſt be,
And her Quietus is to render thee.