Love and a Lack of Time: The Sonnet from Shakespeare to the Present Day

Sonnets are traditionally fourteen line poems written in iambic pentameter. They often adhere to either a Shakespearean, Petrarchan, or Spenserian rhyme scheme, or they can contain a mixture known as a diaspora rhyme scheme. Many times, sonnets are about topics such as mortality, love, time, and nostalgia and have a shift known as a volta in which the point of view or the tone takes a turn. In this case, the topics of love and a lack of time are explored through the sonnets “Her Portrait, “Sonnet 19,” and “I Ask My Mother to Sing.”

The first sonnet, “Her Portrait,” by Jean Blewett does not fit into a conventional form, though it starts off as a Shakespearean sonnet and contains fourteen lines. Interestingly, the volta occurs after line eight, which is also when the poem begins to digress from the traditional Shakespearean rhyme scheme. The volta is marked by a shift from a past memory back to the present day. On a literal level, “Her Portrait” is about a painting of a young child and the way it has sustained over time. Yet, through metaphor, color imagery, and a contrast between time and preservation, Blewett demonstrates the way in which love imprints things into our memory. The sonnet begins by describing a little girl that has been painted “on the wall of mem’ry dull and grey” (Blewett 1-3). In these beginning lines, the painter is Love, a metaphor for a person who loves his muse so much, that he can remember her even when all other memories become a blur. The meticulous care with which a person would paint a face is paralleled to the way in which a person would observe all the details of the person he loved. Despite the dreariness of the narrator’s life, the young girl remains a beacon of youth and happiness preserved forever in his memory. This idea of unending love is also demonstrated through color imagery. While reality is dull and grey, the “curls of gold” and the “changing blush” of the girl in the painting remain vibrant throughout time (4-6). This is largely representative of the way the narrator views his life—one that really had no meaning and no spark except for those moments with the young girl whose eyes “light up the wall of mem’ry dull and grey” (14). There are also clear contrasts within the sonnet. In the painting, there is a sense of movement described as the “sparrows brown and bold that flutter to her feet” (8). This is starkly contrasted in the next sentence, which says the painting “hangs there still” (9). The dichotomies within the poem are also apparent in the way that time continues to move and carry on while a painting remains always constant. Despite the fact that so much time has passed since the portrait was first painted, it remains exactly the way it was that day, just as the narrator’s memory of her remains perfectly intact. And unlike the youthful girl whose “sweet lips hold their smile and can thrill,” the narrator is so old that his life has become a blur of greyness (12). Ironically, a painting, something that is unchanging and still, becomes a more lively and beautiful representation of the narrator’s life than his actual life. This sonnet is one of incredible nostalgia and sadness. Ultimately, Jean Blewett’s “Her Portrait” is about a man who loved a young girl so strongly that all other memories greyed in comparison to her and her lively spirit.

In the next poem, “Sonnet 19” by William Shakespeare, the narrator begs Time to not interfere with the beauty of his lover. Like all Shakespearean sonnets, it is composed of fourteen lines and has an “abab/cdcd/efef/gg” rhyme scheme. And similarly, it deals with the universal topics of love and time. Ultimately, through personification, imagery, and a motif of sharpness, Shakespeare conveys his desire to keep his lover from aging so that they may remain together forever. Beginning in the first line of the poem, the narrator addresses the character of Time, and personifies him as a creature that devours everything in his wake. This is largely paralleled to the lions and tigers described in the next couple lines. Yet, Time is even more deadly than those beasts because it has the power to “blunt thou the lion’s paws” and “pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws” (Shakespeare 2-4). And beyond that, Time is more powerful than even Mother Nature, who is also personified, seen in the way that Time can “make the earth devour her own sweet brood” as well as determine what seasons will be happy or sad—a fact that one would think would be left up to Mother Nature. (2). Time is once again personified later in the sonnet when the narrator begs that it not carve lines, or wrinkles, into his lover’s forehead, demonstrating his desire to keep his lover young forever. The vivid animal imagery throughout “Sonnet 19” also serves as a powerful tool in conveying the strength of Time.

In Shakespeare’s descriptions, Time removes the claws and teeth of some of the mightiest animals—largely the parts that make those animals so mighty in the first place. It is because of this description that we understand how Time affects humans. Just as it removes the most lethal parts of animals, it strips people of their faculties and their beauty. This is perhaps why the narrator begs that his lover’s brow remain intact and why he wants nothing more than for time to “allow for beauty’s pattern to succeeding men” or for his lover’s beauty to become an example of perfection for generations to come (12). And in describing how Time can kill even Phoenixes, who traditionally burn themselves only to be resurrected from the ashes, Shakespeare shows us that nothing is above the power of Time—not even those things which appear immortal. Lastly, Shakespeare demonstrates the supremacy of Time through a motif of sharpness. This is seen in the way the narrator asks that Time “carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow” as well in the sharpness of the claws and the teeth of the animals (9). This sharpness can be compared to the way Shakespeare views life in general—as such a short and fleeting experience that he needs to beg for more Time, even when he knows that what he is asking for is impossible. Despite the fact that he claims, “I forbid thee one most heinous crime,” it is clear that he doubts himself because in the last two lines he gives in and declares that his lover will remain immortal through Shakespeare’s poetry (8). The motif of sharpness seen in the animals and in the antique pen as well as in the short span of life adds to the idea that Time unfairly pulls two lovers apart. Ultimately, not even his pleas are enough to keep Time from reaching his lover and the only thing he can find comfort in is the fact that the poetry will keep his lover alive in spirit. It is this volta between the first twelve lines and the rhyming couplet at the end that demonstrates his surrender to time. Thus, in “Sonnet 19,” the poetic devices of personification, imagery, and motif all contribute to the central theme of the sonnet: that the effects of Time are inevitable. Shakespeare realizes this by the end, though in some ways, he succeeds in beating time through the publication of this poem.

The last poem, “I Ask My Mother to Sing” by Li-Young Lee, represents the least traditional of the three sonnets. Not only is it written in blank verse, but the title becomes an extra line of the poem. Yet like the other two, it is about love and nostalgia. The narrator, his mother, and his grandmother all long for the past when the narrator’s father was alive and also for China—a place that the narrator feels connected to despite the fact that he has never been. Through plot, imagery, and motif, LI-Young Lee conveys a sense of longing not only for a loved one, but for one’s place of origin. The narrator begins by asking his mother to sing a song that she used to sing with his father when he was alive. Both the narrator’s grandmother and mother begin to sing and for a little while, he is transported to China and connected to his culture. The two women become overwhelmed with emotion and begin to cry, though they continue to sing their sad song. In this narrator’s case, he is afflicted with both a lack of time with his father and a complete absence of time with his roots back in China. In describing how he has never been to Peking and the Summer Palace and in saying, “I love to hear it sung,” we, as readers, understand that his connection with the song results from more than simply the loss of his father—it is about his longing for a heritage that he never truly experienced. This longing is demonstrated through incredibly vivid imagery from the way his father “would play his accordion and sway like a boat” (3-4) to the way “the waterlilies fill with rain until they overturn, spilling water into water, then rock back, and fill with more” (10-12).

Yet Li-Young Lee manages to not only enrapture our visual senses, but our audible ones as well. We can see his father playing the accordion and hear the music he plays. We can see the picnickers running and hear the song being sung. We can see the waterlilies rocking and hear the crying of the two women. This is a poem that takes over the senses completely. And despite the sadness of this sonnet, there is an extremely soothing quality about it that is achieved through motifs of water and rocking. The water motif is demonstrated with the rain over Kuen Ming Lake and the waterlilies that spill over as well as with the crying. Similarly, the rocking is seen with the way the narrator’s father swayed and played the accordion and in the way the waterlillies rock back and forth. And more than that, there is almost a rocking feel to the poem itself. The euphony of lines like “how the waterlillies fill with rain” and the lyrical way in which the sonnet is written contribute to this sense of flow and rocking (10). Similarly, the water and rocking motif both contribute to the sense of movement in the poem and the idea that nothing stands still. This sense of movement is seen with the waterlillies that continue to fill up and spill water and with the running picnickers as well as in the way that “Both women have begun to cry, though neither stops her song” (13-14). In the beginning of the poem, the two women begin to sing and by the volta, not only are they still singing, but they have now begun to cry as well. There is this clear sense that things continue to move on, just as time continues to move as well. Through devices like plot, imagery, and motif, Li-Young Lee conveys in “I Ask My Mother to Sing” the incredible sadness of losing a loved one, as well as the desire to find oneself through one’s heritage. The song therefore becomes a sort of soothing eulogy for a family that has experienced loss and a boy that longs for China.

In “Her Portrait, “Sonnet 19,” and “I Ask My Mother to Sing,” a common topic of time and the lack thereof it emerges. Through these three sonnets, we see that when people are in love or love each other, there can never be enough time. It is because of this idea that one must always be conscious of the fact that time will one day run out.