Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as his plays, are a rich source of insight into all aspects of love (and of course most other human characteristics). His inventiveness is a constant source of pleasure as his poems images and references and vocabulary combine to create fresh and novel perspectives on his subject.
In this poem, Shakespeare turns his attention to a declaration of love, using history and tradition to support his case, but proposing that his current love surpasses all that the ancient chroniclers and historians could imagine.
Sonnet 106: When in the chronicle of wasted time
BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
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,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
The first four lines set out the premise; the poet reads the ancient chronicles of history and sees descriptions of beautiful ladies and bold knights, paragons of their qualities of beauty, virtue, and bravery. The “chronicle of wasted time” stands for the texts of history and legend, such as Shakespeare used as sources when writing such plays as Macbeth and King Lear. Anachronistically, the phrase also brings to mind a Proustian echo, pre-dating La Recherche du Temps Perdu by 400 years. It is quite possible Proust knew this poem, of course.
The second four lines link the past, the beauty of history and legend with the present, saying that the ancient writers have showed they are would want to write about the beauty of the poet’s current lover, which, by association must be equal or superior to the beauties described in the chronicles of old.
Extending the metaphor, Shakespeare says that the chronicles are therefore prophecies of the beauty of his lover that the poet sees before him, beauty of such splendour that the ancient writers would not be able to describe it adequately; just as contemporary writers would be able to wonder at the beauty with their eyes but not find the right words to describe it.
And of course, by writing this poem, and others of the same type, Shakespeare disproves his conclusion, firmly setting himself up above the ancient chroniclers and other contemporary writers. Looks like he was right.
The Poetry Dude