When forty winters shall besiege thy brow…
A common complaint among those forced to study Shakespeare is, “Well why didn’t he just say that? Why does it have to be so complicated / use so many words / say things backward…?'”
I thought I’d pick one of my favorite examples, shown above.
This is the opening line to Sonnet #2. Like many of the other sonnets, the “procreation” ones especially, sonnet 2 offers a glimpse into the future. Any random future? No, a very specific one – 40 years from now. Sure, Shakespeare could have said “Some day”, and there are probably a whole bunch of “modern translations” of the sonnets that say exactly that.
But he doesn’t say it like that, does he? Imagine a job interview or a high school guidance counselor asking you, “Where do you see yourself in the future?” Typically they don’t. They ask, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” By putting a real number up there, Shakespeare puts the future within the reader’s grasp. Each person can imagine for themselves what life will be like in 40 years.
Wait, it gets better. Shakespeare didn’t even say “years”, did he? After all, what’s a year? Draw me one. How does a year feel?
Instead he said winter. That make a better image in your head? I bet you could draw winter. What’s winter feel like? Shakespeare’s not out there sledding and making snowmen, folks. Winter is long and cold and desolate, and you’ll be lucky to survive to see spring. If we’re talking strictly about telling time he could just as easily have said forty summers or forty autumns, but this is why the man’s a poet. He’s painting a picture in only a handful of words. His point is still the same – 40 years from now. But do you start to see how he makes it look? If you’re an old man looking back on 40 summers you’re looking back on happy memories. 40 winters makes you think “Wow, what a long hard road that’s been.”
He’s not done, oh no. Not by a long shot. What exactly is that winter doing? Just coming and going, one year after the next? Time just passing you by? “When forty winters have gone by”? Far from it. You have to love the word he picks here – besiege. Do you know what that means? It means to attack, to wage war upon. Besieging is what the barbarian hordes do to the castle. More illustratively it means a never-ending, relentless attack. In a word, Shakespeare’s managed to take this sonnet from a still life painting of falling snow to an ongoing war, you against Time itself (in other sonnets referred to as “the guy with the scythe”).
What’s the battleground for this war? Where is Time doing its worst? Here’s where it gets personal. This is not a hypothetical “you against the guy with the scythe” argument, Shakespeare got a point. Time is going to play out this battle on your face, son! What do you think happens when you get old? You won’t be as pretty then as you are now, let me tell you.
And that, ultimately, is the point. As the story of the procreation sonnets goes, you’ve got this young and handsome guy who is so busy enjoying his life that he doesn’t have time to settle down, get married and have kids. So where do you hit him? In his vanity. “Dude, see how handsome you are now? I’ve got news for you, you’re not going to look so pretty after 40 years. Think about it.” Once you’ve got his attention, then you can deliver the “you should have kids, because they’ll look just like you and everybody will still appreciate how handsome you were” argument. (Compare this logic to that of sonnet 12 where he takes a very different approach, talking about how flowers get all withered up as they get old. Here he doesn’t talk about what happens to people in general, he comes right out in this first line and says *thy* brow. You. When *you* get old.)
As I write this, the analysis next to the original says: “Forty years from now when your brow is wrinkled with age.” There’s nothing *wrong* with that. It tells you the point, if you needed it. But hopefully I can at least give you a glimpse at what you’re missing, and why exactly Shakespeare chooses the words he does.