Sonnet 106 | Breakdown of Shakespeare's Sonnets
sonnet 106 shakespeare

Sonnet 106

Written by on | Shakespeare

In this sonnet, we see the poet directly referencing their own poetry, a theme we encounter many times throughout the sonnets. This is quite a sweet sonnet, we hear the poet essentially say to the fair youth that throughout history, poets have tried to describe immeasurable beauty through blazons, and that beauty is you. And even though I’m looking at you now, there are no words to describe you.

Original Text

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
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,
I see their antique pen would have express’d
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they look’d but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Had eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

Verse Breakdown

Bold = Stressed
Unbold = Unstressed
ABCDEFG = Rhyming Pattern

First Quatrain:
When in the chronicle of wasted time A
I see descriptions of the fairest wights, B
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme A
In praise of ladies dead, and lovely knights, B

Second Quatrain:
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best, C
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow, D
I see their antique pen would have express’d C
Even such a beauty as you master now. D

Third Quatrain:
So all their praises are but prophecies E
Of this our time, all you prefiguring; F
And, for they look’d but with divining eyes, E
They had not skill enough your worth to sing: F

Rhyming Couplet:
For we, which now behold these present days, G
Had eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise. G

Modern Translation

When in the history books
I see descriptions of the most beautiful people
And the poetry inspired by them
Praising long dead ladies and lovely knights

Then in the love poems that catalogue their beauty
Their hands, their feet, their lips, their eyes, their faces
I see that those writers were trying to describe back then
The kind of beauty that you possess now

So all their praises were predicting
Our present, they spoke of you
And even though they looked into the future
They lacked the skills to truly describe your beauty

For us who live now
Have they eyes to see you but not the words to describe your beauty

Thought Breakdown & Analysis

When in the chronicle of wasted time
When I read about the past

Okay so here we begin with Shakespeare’s classic ‘when,when,when,if’ structure. Like many sonnets we start out by saying when I do x, or when x happens, y will occur.

I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
I read about the descriptions of the most beautiful people

When I’m looking at old history books I read about all these beautiful people

And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
And the poetry inspired by them

This ‘translation’ like many doesn’t really do this line justice. Beauty making beautiful old rhyme, beauty is born of beauty.

In praise of ladies dead, and lovely knights,
In praise of ladies who are long dead, and lovely knights

This poetry is talking about lovely people who have long since shuffled off this mortal coil.
And so that’s the first quatrain, it sets the scene for the following quatrains to break down the argument.

Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Then in the love poems that catalogue their beauty

Here’s a direct reference to the crux of this sonnet and many of the sonnets, the blazon, which is a very direct kind of love poem that describes and dotes on a person and everything the poet loves about them, as we’re about to hear.

Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
Of their hand, their foot, their lip, their eye, their forehead.

Brow’s a much nicer word than forehead isn’t it? Anyway it’s not exactly what that means but it’s pretty close. So this is what the poets are talking about in their blazons. They’re describing the immeasurable beauty of their subjects. Note that they’re not describing the way that they speak, their temperament, their laugh, but the way they look. Sidenote, there’s arguments to be made that ‘foot’ really is referencing the way that they walk, but again, it’s physical.

I see their antique pen would have express’d
I see their old pen would have expressed.

Expressed what?

Even such a beauty as you master now.
The beauty that you possess now.

So I see that what they were writing about, that they were trying to write down, was the beauty that you yourself have now. And that’s the close of the second quatrain, we’ve expanded on the initial argument and said that these old writers were trying to describe immeasurable beauty, and what they were writing about was beauty like yours.

So all their praises are but prophecies
So all of their praises were just predicting the future

All the things they wrote about was a prediction of the future. This is the opening to the third quatrain which is usually a turn in the argument.

Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
Of the present, they wrote of you

Everything they wrote about back then, was a prediction of you! In our present, their future.

And, for they look’d but with divining eyes,
And even though the looked into the future

They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
They lacked the skill to describe your beauty

So that’s how we close the third quatrain. All this leads to, these poets who write their blazons about immeasurable beauty, were merely predicting the future, and even thought they did so, they lacked the skill, the words, to truly describe your beauty.

For we, which now behold these present days,
For us who live now

Had eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
Have eyes to see you but lack the words to describe you

Even though we who live in the present can see you now, we still lack the words to describe you. So all of this essentially boils down to, your beauty is so immeasurable that there really are no words to describe it. But that doesn’t mean we won’t try.

Unfamiliar Language

Wight (n.)
[archaism] person, human being

Blazon (n.)
revelation, divulging, publication

Blazon (n.)
description, representation, delineation

Brow (n.)
forehead [often plural, referring to the two prominences of the forehead]

antic, antick(e), antique (adj.)
ancient, olden, former

Master (v.)
old form: maister
own, possess, have at one’s disposal

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

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