Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another,
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live remembered not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee.
It is thought likely that Shakespeare read Thomas Wilson‘s Arte of Rhetoric, published in 1560. The work includes a translation of “An Epistle to perswade a yong Gentleman to mariage, deuised by Erasmus, in the behalfe of his freend.” In the epistle we find this reference to the conjugal act of begetting of children as a form of “tillage“:
If that man be punished, who little heedeth the maintenaunce of his Tillage, the which although it bee neuer so well mannered, yet it yeeldeth nothing els but Wheate, Barley, Beanes, and Peason: what punishment is he worthie to suffer, that refuseth to Plowe that land which being Tilled, yeeldeth children.
In the passage just quoted the implied proposition is that “If that man be punished” for neglecting to till his land then a husband should be punished for neglecting to get his wife with child, but the nature of the punishment is left unstated, “what punishment is he worthy to suffer[?]”.
In Shakespeare’s third sonnet, however, the proposition is delayed until after the introduction of the tillage trope and the “punishment” is clearly stated in the final couplet, “phrased almost as a death-curse” as Helen Vendler notes.
We can make a simplified table to compare the progression of the two arguments thus:
|If a man be punished||Who is the woman|
|who refuses to till||who refuses to procreate?|
|what punishment||Who is the man|
|should a husband suffer||who refuses to procreate?|
|who refuses to procreate||If you refuse to procreate|
|you will die and be forgotten.|
The choice for Erasmus’s young gentleman is “marriage” or “punishment” but for Shakespeare’s young gentleman the choice is between “life” and “death”.
By the way, you can use this link to download a free PDF file of Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique, courtesy of Renascence Editions.