Glass in Shakespeare’s Sonnet #3
The careful craft and design of poetry condenses the amount of text needed to convey information. This is true of all art, in that pieces are often qualitatively judged by how much they “say.” Good works may carry one or two levels of meaning hidden behind their lines, but a masterpiece holds an infinite amount of knowledge masked in the spaces between words. Lettersmiths such as Shakespeare, Keats, and Albee construct in their pieces vast symbolic subsystems that interact within the confines of the work’s consciousness. The actualization of a poet’s conception is likened to the infinity of two mirrors facing each other. As one moves toward a masterpiece (studying it) more layers are revealed and one is able to see the boundless possibilities of its analysis. As is the case with “glass” in Shakespeare’s sonnet number three, one word can flip meanings and resonate with clarity the soul of the masterpiece.
In Victorian times the word glass, while still retaining its current day meaning, could easily reference a mirror or reflective surfaces like water. Sonnet number three uses these meanings to show the paradox of legacies. The word appears and is referred to both literally and metaphorically. It is important to realize that the disparaging interpretations that arise from the meanings of “glass” do not necessarily contradict each other. Instead both meanings are acknowledged in a deeper contextual message, and all the images of sonnet number three combine to pose a question between fleshly progeny and artistic legacy.
The first mention of the word appears in line one as a strong command to the reader. The poem orders an abrasive self-evaluation and seemingly an alienation from the physical body. “The face thou viewest” (1) holds no possessive articles that would connect a reader to the image even though mentally they may be one and the same. This alienation leads way to line two in which the author, like a persuasive mother, calls for the procreation of the reader. The face in the mirror is precarious both in life and as an alienated object in the poem. Its reparation and conservation come in this encouraged form of youthful renewal. Cleverly this idea is reinforced by a rhyme scheme that links renewal and image stationing with reflection through the rhyme of lines one and three.
A quite different interpretation of the quatrain becomes apparent when “glass” is understood in its traditional meaning of translucence. Line one now invokes two figures separated instead of one figure divided. The poem’s consciousness of itself now becomes visible as the reader is told to incite others to action. Both the poem and its orders are cries to the posterity of the self. They exude an importance that may “beguile the world” (4). Additionally each line of the first quatrain holds an extra hanging syllable. Emphasizing the message of the quatrain, the eleven syllable lines make the poem top heavy, which predicts affirmation and not condemnation by the final couplet. Accordingly the self-awareness of the poem and the manhood of the author pull the actual earthly consummation of romantic couples into question. These first four lines may, instead of a plea for human preservation, be a poem’s petitions for its own survival.
The second and final mention of the word glass is found in line nine, “Thou art thy mother’s glass.” These lines point towards the lifeline that family brings to an individual. Seeing one’s self in a daughter is life extended. It is with this lively extension that comfort is found in the glass. It is painful to endure time, and with every passing moment the question of heritage lingers. A mirror that displays the markings of family is a window to ancestry. It comforts the old to know that the young live, but line thirteen has clear disdain of this comfort. Those that seek their own manipulated images for relief have impacted the world only through default. Shakespeare sees children as either a metaphorical device or, albeit less likely, as an easy path towards remembrance. More than the required acknowledgement of family, the author wishes for infinity to reach him directly through his words instead of indirectly through his offspring.
Shakespeare pleas in his sonnet both to be remembered in the future and for those around him to leave a lasting mark on the world. His sonnet is the child of this desire, and in its lines, children represent works such as their parent poem. In the craft of poetic form a fair uneared womb is unscathed paper waiting for the tillage of a pen. Indeed, the act of advancing one’s works as an eternal legacy is extremely “self-loving.” However, Shakespeare accounts it foolish to destroy the station of his image. The poem reflects its author’s views and opinions and leaves them to tell the ages with an accuracy that children could never attain.
The rhyme of the final couplet fits with rhymes in the third quatrain thus reinforcing their connections. The couplet does not overthrow the meanings of the previous images, but instead it serves to warp them from a literal interpretation into a figural one. Lines nine and fourteen are especially linked by their use of the same ending word. Initially they would state that others live in the mind’s eye only. Memory of those lost holds the power of their presence. With the influence of the entire couplet an importance is placed on the quality of one’s life and not the quantity of life’s birthings. Artistic and material works reflect the principles of their authors.
In Shakespeare’s sonnet number three the single word “glass” that is mentioned only twice manages to completely overturn the poem from a plea for children to that of symbolic legacy. It is thus that the poem turns its reflection towards the reader. Viewing this sonnet is the same as asking “what have I done with my life?” It is a thing that inspires creativity and reverence for that previously created. One is able to see the care and thought which goes into great works, and there is a care to preserve such things. Just as “thine image dies with thee” (14) is true, so is its opposite. With the death of the author’s reflection so dies the author.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 3. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. M. H. Abrams, editor. 2001. pg. 495.
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