Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage:
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, 'fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract, and look another way:
So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon
Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.
The poet explores another theme, different from those he has pursued in the preceding sonnets. He draws a simile between the rising and setting sun and youth and age. In the sunset of his days the youth will no longer be surrounded by admirers. Unless he has children to carry on the line and reflect his former beauty, he will vanish unknown into the murky depths of time.
When the sun rises, everyone admires it, and pays homage to it, as if it were a king. As it climbs higher in the sky to reach its zenith, mortals admire it still. But as it plunges downwards towards evening, the gaze is averted, and, like 'unregarded age in corners thrown', it is ignored and other rising stars take precedence. 'So you too, fair youth, will be nothing as you age, unless you become the rising sun by having a son.'
The 1609 Quarto Version
LOe in the Orient when the gracious light,
Lifts vp his burning head,each vnder eye
Doth homage to his new appearing ſight,
Seruing with lookes his ſacred maieſty,
And hauing climb'd the ſteepe vp heauenly hill,
Reſembling ſtrong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortall lookes adore his beauty ſtill,
Attending on his goulden pilgrimage:
But when from high-moſt pich with wery car,
Like feeble age he reeleth from the day,
The eyes(fore dutious )now conuerted are
From his low tract and looke an other way:
So thou,thy ſelfe out-going in thy noon:
Vnlok'd on dieſt vnleſſe thou get a ſonne.
1. Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
the orient = the east;
the gracious light = the sun. The Eastern lands are also suggested, where, in places, the sun was worshipped. The sun is considered kingly among the heavenly bodies in the old Ptolemaic astronomy. gracious = noble, glorious, kind etc.
2. Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
his burning head - In Greek mythology Helios, the sun god, would be depicted with a flaming head.
each under eye = each dweller on earth, under the sun. But from what follows it is clear that the reference is also to inferior beings in the social scale, those who gaze in awe on kings.
3. Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Doth homage to = pays homage to, worships, bows down, as humans do figuratively before the sun, lest they be dazzled by it. new-appearing: the sun could be considered to be new each day. Cf:
For as the sun is daily new and old 76.
4. Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
Showing, by their looks, how much they respect him; averting their gaze out of respect for his majesty.
5. And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
The chariot of the sun, driven by Phoebus in Greek mythology, climbs up the steep slope of the sky.
steep-up = inclined steeply upwards.
6. Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
If his refers to the sun, the meaning is that the sun, in his middle path, resembles a strong youth. If his refers to youth, then it would mean that the sun at its zenith is like a strong youth who has attained the prime (middle) of his youth. Since the entire extended simile is that of the sun growing from youth to age, the focus shifts continuously between the youth, who is also growing old, and the sun itself, and both meanings are simultaneously possible.
7. Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
mortal looks = the looks of mortals, also looks which are mortal. The eyes of mortals do not all at once abandon the sacred majesty of the sun, but wait for surer signs of his decline.
8. Attending on his golden pilgrimage:
Attending signifies performing the duties of an attendant or servant. pilgrimage = any long journey, but especially one undertaken to a religious shrine. The epithet golden is applied to the sun, but would be appropriate also to describe the royal progress (journey) of a monarch.
9. But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
highmost pitch = topmost point, zenith. But pitch also threatens an ensuing downfall. Technically it was a term applied to the flight of a hawk or falcon.
weary car = weary chariot of the sun (in practice the horses which pulled it would be weary, having climbed the steep up heavenly hill). For a classical depiction of the sun's chariot see illustration below. The horses of the sun are also featured in the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon.
10. Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The image is that of old age stumbling and falling. Of course the sun, being the day, or daylight, cannot exactly reel from himself. But the chariot of the sun now starts to fall away from its high point, and reels away from the zenith. The image is almost that of the daylight staggering away from its own brightness.
11. The eyes, 'fore duteous, now converted are
'fore = before. The eyes, in the former state of affairs, showed their obedience and adulation.
now converted are = now are turned away, averted. To convert did not then have the predominant meaning of 'to cause someone to change faith'.
12. From his low tract, and look another way:
his refers again to the sun.
tract = pathway, track. The sun is now low in the sky, ready to plunge once more beneath the horizon.
13. So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon
So thou = you, my beloved, the fair youth; outgoing = extinguishing or being extinguished, or excelling yourself; or beginning to decline after you have reached the zenith of your powers. noon was also a euphemism for sexual arousal.
14. Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.
Unlooked on diest = You and your race will die out unmarked and unnoticed. To die also meant to experience orgasm, so the implication is that he is wasting his life in solitary (unlooked on) masturbation. He should be directing his energies towards begetting a son.
get = beget. son It is thought that a pun on sun is intended.