In the opening statement of Love's Labour's Lost (Act 1 Scene 1), Ferdinand speaks of why he wants to make the oath to study and forgo base pleasures. He says

Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
Live register'd upon our brazen tombs
And then grace us in the disgrace of death;
When, spite of cormorant devouring Time,
The endeavor of this present breath may buy
That honour which shall bate his scythe's keen edge
And make us heirs of all eternity.

My question is specifically about the phrase

spite of cormorant devouring Time

Ferdinand seems to be saying that his reason for wanting to take the oath is to be remembered for greatness beyond his death. Thus the reference to time makes sense. But why a "cormorant devouring time"? What is relevant about a cormorant? Perhaps that it is black in color, or that it is a predator? Why does it have spite?

What is the meaning embedded in this phrase?

  • 2
    The bird was named after its nature: a glutton. The word originally had a broader sense of gluttony, a devourer, but the sense is so obsolete that I think few dictionaries even report it anymore. You can find it in Webster’s 1913, if you’re interested (for once overreaching copyright laws have helped us preserve what otherwise would have been discarded): webster-dictionary.org/definition/cormorant .
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 11 '18 at 15:46
  • @Dan: that should clearly be an answer, and not a comment. Jul 11 '18 at 15:47
  • @PeterShor So make it an answer.
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 11 '18 at 15:48
  • 1
    @DanBron You’re going to have a tough time “proving” that point. It’s what the OED’s entry on the word calls an “etymological fancy”: it’s simply not true. Compare Portuguese corvomarinho for an uncorrupted version of the original. Perhaps you were thinking of Gulo gulo, which is legitimate and even an English word.
    – tchrist
    Jul 12 '18 at 1:43
  • 1
    He's not saying that Time or a cormorant has spite. This is the old use of 'spite' which has now been replaced by 'in spite'. With reference to Lambie's answer below and @DanBron's comment above there is the suggestion that 'cormorant' is used as an adjective describing time in which case the line could be translated into modern English as 'in spite of gluttenously devouring Time' which is clearer but much less poetic and powerful.
    – BoldBen
    Jul 12 '18 at 7:54

comorant was associated with being voracious according to the author below and the word is related to Shakespeare's name via shag bird.

The (now obsolete) word “cormorous” means greedy, insatiable, ravenous.

Shakespeare uses the word “cormorant” in four plays, as a synonym for “voracious.”

Therefore, the shag bird, or cormorant, had a hold on his imagination. I think it was, for lack of a better description, the animal he most thought of to describe himself.


After all, the name Shakespeare would have been spelled many ways, including Shaxbeard, and Shagspur, and so forth.

That means that his name could have been spelled and pronounced like Shagspeare, or maybe even Shagsbird.

I don't think one can say much more here. Sounds right to me. One could say that the bard viewed the comorant as devouring time. However, the meaning may be: comorant-devouring time in modern punctuation, and in that case, it is time that devours the comorant.

comorous, comorant and voracious

  • 1
    I’d say he’s describing time as the devourer, as a cormorant, rather than a cormorant devouring time.
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 11 '18 at 15:55
  • comorant-devouring time, yes.
    – Lambie
    Jul 11 '18 at 17:26
  • What I mean is he is saying time is the cormorant, not in the bird sense but in the glutton sense. What’s being devoured is everything, and its being devoured by time, which is the cormorant (glutton, not bird). Replace everywhere cormorant by glutton to see what I mean. There are no birds, birds are not being eaten. Time is the devourer, and it’s devouring all things.
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 11 '18 at 17:29
  • @DanBron I understand what you are saying. In fact, I don't agree with you necessarily. I think it could be a comorant, the shag bird, and that would then mean that time is, unconsciously, devouring him, the bard.
    – Lambie
    Jul 11 '18 at 17:49
  • There is also this: acobas.net/teaching/shakespeare/masters/birds/cormorant.html
    – Lambie
    Jul 11 '18 at 17:56

Alexander Schmidt, Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, third edition (1902), observes that Shakespeare uses cormorant four times in his plays—once (in Richard II) as a pure noun and three times (in Love's Labour's Lost, in Troilus and Cressida, and in Coriolanus) adjectivally. Here is Schmidt's entry for the word:

Cormorant, a glutton: light vanity, insatiate cormorant, consuming means, soon preys upon itself, R2 II, 1, 38. Adjectively, = ravenous: cormorant devouring time, LLL I, 1, 4. in hot digestion of this cormorant war, Tril. II, 2, 6. the cormorant belly, Cor. I, 1, 125.

In effect, Schmidt interpolates a comma after cormorant in the line from Love's Labour's Lost to yield a sense along the lines of "ravenous, devouring time."

Most early Shakespeare annotators don't offer a gloss on "cormorant devouring time," but it's interesting that a writer in The Lancet (January 1854) provides the missing comma in his invocation of the phrase. From William Harding, "On Tetanic Spasm and Its Treatment by Chloroform":

... moreover it [tetanus] occurs for the most part in the prime of life, in the vigour of healthful manhood—to those who at the time of its abrupt invasion were enjoying healthful ease, and before the elasticity of health has been enfeebled or destroyed by "cormorant, devouring Time."

The same comma pops up less than four years earlier in George Throop, Life-Leaves: From a Rover's Log, serialized in Sartain's Magazine (October 1851):

Hardly conscious of hat I did, I went nearly to the end of a neighbouring wharf, both sides of which were thronged with vessels. One of these, a dilapidated old thing, on which

"Cormorant, devouring Time"

had apparently done his worst, was getting under way. Her mainsail was already up, and a man was casting off the stern-fasts.

"The Literary Garden" in The European Magazine, and London Review (September 1815), in contrast interpolates a hyphen:

Where, spite of cormorant-devouring Time,/ The' endeavor of this present breath, may buy, That honour, which shall bate his scythe's keen edge,/ And make us heirs to all eternity.

But singling out cormorants to be devoured by time seems inexplicable, whereas using them as a figure for ravenous hunger will make sense to anyone who has watched a cormorant come to the surface of lake or inlet, holding a small fish in its beak, and then swallow the victim whole.

Hyder Rollins, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Sonnets includes a footnote in which the editor notes that time as a ravener was a longtime theme in Western literature:

VERITY (ed. 1890) thinks the line [line 1 of Sonnet 19—"Deuouring time blunt thou the Lyons pawes"] may be a reminiscence of Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV.234, "tempus edax rerum, tuque, invidiosa vetustas." He also cites Spenser's Amoretti, 1595, sonnet 58 (1908 ed., p. 728), "Devouring tyme and changeful chance have prayd Her glories pride."—LEE (ed. 1907): Another echo of Ovid's philosophic argument ... {"tempus edax rerum," etc.} which Golding translates {1567, XV.258 f. (1904 ed., p. 300)}: "Thou tyme, the eater up of things, and age of spyghtfull teene, Destroy all things."—ALDEN (ed. 1916) compares Daniel, Delia, 1592, sonnet 46 (1930 ed., p. 33), "times consuming rage."—TUCKER (ed. 1924) compares Love's Labour's Lost, I.i.4, "cormorant devouring Time."—TRAVERSI (Approach to Sh., 1938, p. 46): The sense of the hostility of Time is fundamental, not only in the Sonnets, but to the plays of this period. ... The theme indeed, was a commonplace of the age; it was associated with the Platonizing philosophy adopted by the court poets, and with the religious 'pessimism' of mediaeval tradition.

It seems clear to me from these various sources that "cormorant devouring time" refers not to a special period during which it is appropriate to devour cormorants, nor to a special predilection on time's part to consume cormorants, nor yet to a cormorant's otherwise unrecognized ability to eat time, but to time as both ravenous and devouring, with cormorant standing in for ravenous as an adjective because cormorants themselves were seen (in Shakespeare's day) to be voracious eaters of their finny prey.


cormorant devouring time (a nice animated read)

We feel a natural anxiety that things beyond our control, metaphorically cormorants flying by, will takes things away from us we either haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy … or maybe worse … the things we want to hold on to; the things we did enjoy. “So much universe, and so little time.”

My sense:

The Bard eloquently portraying time (as the coromant - devouring) is inexorable. It is a devouring void. It has no value in and of itself. Poetically speaking … time is always hungry for many of the things we dearly want to endure. It is what you can put within that that creates value.

“We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths; in feelings, not in figures on a dial. We should count time by heart throbs….”



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