When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced

By Sean Carroll | April 17, 2008 11:54 am

April is Poetry Month, just like it was last year. We’re celebrating with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64, about the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

  • jonathan

    Cool! Happy to see this particular sonnet. I memorized it as a kid (to get free admission to the local Renaissance Faire), long before I knew any thermo. I wonder if it had some subterranean appeal to my latent inner-nerd.

  • FWS

    To keep this celebration (of ruin and decay, naturally) going, don’t forget Shelley’s Ozymandias.

  • citrine

    In line # 9 do we see the genesis of the phrase “change of state”?

  • citrine

    Shakespeare was supposedly born on april 23rd 1564 and died on his birthday in 1616.

  • Pingback: April is Poetry month « Bruises Colours()

  • http://bruisescolours.wordpress.com/ bc

    I fail by having a pingback in which I failed to check the spelling the authors name. Sorry Sean. It’s corrected now.

    The allusions to Thermodynamics in this poem made me think of the explanation I once heard that Genesis, at my friends synagogue, is interpreted by them as a poetic telling of the Big Bang, galaxy formation, planet accretion and so forth. He even said he noticed a reference to the CMB.

  • jeff

    The exact time that you reach thermal equilibrium will arrive just as sure and as real as two seconds from now will be here. But amazingly, you didn’t have to do any work at all to be born in the first place. Cheers.

  • John Ramsden

    Citrine’s post (#4) reminded me of a piece of numerology trivia everyone probably knows, but in case not – In Psalm 46 of the King James Version of the Bible the 46th word from the beginning is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear”. [ http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/k/kjv/kjv-idx?type=DIV1&byte=2190116 ]

    Also, the year before this version was published, in 1611, Shakespeare was (you guessed it) 46 years old!

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    So has anyone written sonnets about the first or third laws?

  • ike


    “What could be more emotionally electrifying than, after millennia of human struggles to understand what has been seen as the threatening mystery of erratic nature, to learn why bad things happen to all of us? To be rapidly released from the prison of fear of an uncertain threatening world that is still present in so many societies and cultures? To be shown in a few minutes the ultimate reasons for the fragility of our prized possessions and to reflect on the normally sturdy protections of activation energies for our artifacts and such energies along with biochemical feedback patterns for our even more fragile biochemistry?”

    “Activation energy barriers must be recognized as our essential bulwarks against the second law of thermodynamics’ predictions.”

    Full fathom five thy father lies;
    Of his bones are coral made;
    Those are pearls that were his eyes;
    Nothing of him that does fade,
    But doth suffer a sea-change
    Into something rich and strange.
    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
    Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.

    Or try J.R.R. Tolkien:

    This thing all things devours:
    Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
    Gnaws iron, bites steel;
    Grinds hard stones to meal;
    Slays king, ruins town
    And beats high mountain down.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Fascinating, that Shakespeare (or was it really Christopher Marlow/collaboration?) could craft such an apt poetic framing of entropy. Someone should (if not already) collect such artful prefigurings of scientific principles. For those who don’t think that time is “real”, it’s an “illusion” etc. (how I despise such conceits), I ask, how do you explain entropy? Note this comment by Lee Smolin in another thread, arguing that time is real: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2007/02/21/oos-and-bbs/#comment-204859.

  • John Ramsden

    How about a slightly more optimistic quote, for those who don’t exclude the possibility of multiverses, from Pope’s translation of the Iliad:


    Another race the following spring supplies;
    They fall successive, and successive rise:
    So generations in their course decay;
    So flourish these, when those are pass’d away.

    It’s a shame that renaissance and baroque poets, such as Dante and Milton, felt the need to stuff their works so full of obscure names and references from classical mythology.

    Educated readers must have been familiar with them at the time; but nobody today has a clue who these characters are, and one can’t help feeling that rather spoils the lofty and inspirational effect they were striving to achieve.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Jonathan Vos Post

    Jungle-floor bacteria devour helicopters after war;
    ripped human corpses thaw, screaming, in battle zone

    Smog-sucking moss evolves to grow on auto bumpers;
    gas-tank tapeworm writhes: blind premium dreams

    Heavy weaponry of corporate wars, intractable
    ultimatum when lawyers subpoena their own DNA

    Cockroaches skitter: dust of broken televisions;
    lay phosphorescent eggs between commercials

    Reunification pressures force abandonment of immortality;
    death substitutes for taxes: final cost of doing business

    Skinned headless lizard throbs, shoved into your chest:
    replicant replaces your broken-once-too-often heart

    Time & nucleotide
    wait for no man

    15 sep 92

    Copyright 1998 by Magic Dragon Multimedia.
    All rights reserved Worldwide. May not be reproduced without permission.
    May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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