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Sonnet 106: When in the Chronicle of Wasted Time

by Litinbox

‘Sonnet 106: When in the Chronicle of Wasted Time’ is one of the sonnets by William Shakespeare in the Fair Youth series. It was first published in the 1609 Quarto known as “Shakespeare’s Sonnets“.

William Shakespeare’s sonnets are a collection of 154 addressed to Fair Youth (Sonnets 1-126) and Dark Lady (Sonnets 127-154) whose identity has been a subject of debate among scholars and literary enthusiasts until today.

Sonnet 106: Summary

As with most of the sonnets in the Fair Youth series, Sonnet 106 also reflects on the passage of time and the Fair Youth’s Beauty.

The speaker contemplating on the descriptions of beauty by the ancient writers and how these descriptions are comparable to the beauty of the Fair Youth.

Chronicle of Wasted Time

Sonnet 106 starts with a reference to the “chronicle of wasted time”. This suggests that the speaker is reading the books of old writers.

In these writings, the speaker observes, there are descriptions of the most beautiful people and their physical attributes. These descriptions in the ancient poems and songs dedicated to “ladies dead and lovely knights.”

The speaker is aware of the fact that these writers praised the beauty of the people of the past, but he tends to believe that they were in fact attempting to describe the Fair Youth’s Beauty in the present.

Ancient Poets vs Youth’s Beauty

In the 5th line, the poet uses the term “blazon” (“Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best”), to describe beauty. This term refers to the heraldic description of the cost of arms.

The Youth’s beauty is so elegant. So, even the ancient writers would have wished to capture his beauty in their writings. The speaker asserts that the past writers were in fact prophets who were able to foretell the arrival of the Fair Youth and the elegance of his beauty.

However, according to the speaker, the ancient writers didn’t have the capability to adequately express the elegance of the Youth’s beauty in their writings.

Divining Eyes

Towards the end of the sonnet, the speaker suggests that the ancient writers with “divining eyes” could only foresee the arrival of the Fair Youth, and they were unable to appreciate his beauty fully. 

The people living in the present are proud to witness the Fair Youth’s beauty firsthand. However, like the ancient writers, they feel they are inadequate in their ability to praise the Youth’s beauty through words, though they can marvel at his beauty.

Sonnet 106: Line by Line Summary

Sonnet 106 of William Shakespeare reflects on the passage of time and the beauty of the Fair Youth. Let’s go through line by line to understand and appreciate the sonnet:

Lines 1-3:

When in the chronicle of wasted time

I see descriptions of the fairest wights

And beauty making beautiful old rhyme

In the opening line of Sonnet 106, Shakespeare uses the phrase, “chronicle of wasted time”. It actually refers to the passage of time (past). Once the time passes, it is perceived as something that is wasted. 

The speaker is reading the descriptions of the “fairest wights” / the most beautiful people by the ancient writers in their writings. Like Shakespeare describes the Fair Youth’s beauty in his sonnets, those old could have celebrated famous people for their beauty.

So, it is clear that ‘beauty’ has been an inspiration from “old rhyme”/ ancient days. The phrase “old rhyme” refers to beautiful poems in ancient days and throughout history.

Lines 4-6:

In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights

Then in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best

Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow

The speaker observes that these poems and writings of old writers were in praise of dead women and lovely knights (“ladies dead and lovely knights”). These figures were celebrated for their exceptional beauty (similar to that of the Fair Youth’s).

The speaker further suggests that the descriptions of beauty by the ancient writers, without doubt, highlighting the best aspects of beauty. Then, Shakespeare is listing out certain physical features associated with beauty – “hand, foot, lip, eye, and eye brow”. These are the features described and appreciated in those old writings.

Lines 7-9:

I see their antique pen would have expressed

Even such a beauty as you master now

So all their praises are but prophecies

Those writers used their “antique pen” (writing instruments of the ancient times) to describe the beauty they witnessed, even such a beauty that we witness in the Fair Youth.

The speaker tends to believe that those praises of beauty were actually predictions (prophecies) about the Fair Youth’s beauty.

Though, the speaker acknowledges that the ancient writers described old beautiful people, he asserts that they were prophecies and those writers were able to predict the arrival of the Fair Youth.

Lines 10-12:

Of this our time, all you prefiguring

And, for they looked but with divining eyes

They had not skill enough your worth to sing

In these lines, the descriptions of beauty by the old writers is regarded as a prefiguration or harbinger of the present beauty.

According to the poet, the ancient writers had “divining eyes” i.e. they possessed a prophetic or visionary insight. This visionary insight allowed them to recognise the Fair Youth’s beauty even before it fully manifested.

Inspite of their ability to predict his beauty, those ancient writers did not have the potential to fully capture the magnificence of the Fair Youth’s beauty.

The poet implies that the Youth’s beauty is so exceptional and it exceeds those writers’ capability to adequately describe it. It surpasses even the descriptions of the old writers.

Lines 13-14:

For we, which now behold these present days

Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise

In the concluding couplet, the speaker shifts his focus to the current era. Those who live now (including the speaker) have the privilege of witnessing the beauty of the Fair Youth.

Look at the last line. The speaker declares though the people in present time can marvel at his beauty, they lack “tongues to praise”, that is, their words and language cannot fully express their administration of the Fair Youth’s beauty. This again asserts the Youth’s beauty is so exceptional.

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