When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

One of the things I love most about 15 is that it’s all one sentence. Observing the truth — surprisingly painful for how simple and obvious it is — that everything has just a fleeting moment of perfection before it begins to disappear, sets him off on a rant of syallables that all rush to the point in a mad unique urgency.

What that point may be seems to be a hot debate (or at least it does whenever I bring it up). The surface reading is totally valid — that’s the one where Shakespeare is preserving the young person through this writing. Another view is that it’s a poem about having children — that may or may not be valid (I don’t know, I ain’t no English teacher) but for some reason it kind of pisses me off. It’s true that the sonnets are very to-the-point and often literal, but there’s something so base and unartful about that. I think that poetry can be ruined by the over-explanation and over-literalization, just like those needlessly didactic description cards next to paintings in museums. I wish I could be the person in charge of those description cards so I could write things like, “Holy shit — look at how much BLUE Picasso used! Can you believe all that BLUE?! I mean, look at it!” So much better.

So yeah, the point: I love those last lines.

“And all in war with Time for love of you, as he takes from you I engraft you new” — to all things an ending but does the ending really matter? The ending doesn’t change the existence of the beloved, or the moments, or anything, and the willful “I engraft you new” is so heroic, at odds with the ravages of the open warfare against time. Instead of melancholy and regret at the passing days, you take in the moment of perfection and capture it forever. To me, it only skirts the point to say the poem is about a young person getting old when it’s more profoundly about everything that has its time and goes away: the old loves, the stolen kisses, the triumphant happinesses, the easy times, all of the little things that make up a life and disappear when you’re not paying attention. And in the end it’s about how to pay attention. Everything has an end but everything also lives forever.

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