Sonnet 55 by William Sheakspeare

The Poem

     Sonnet 55 is one of a collection of 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare and expresses one of them major themes of these sonnets: Poetry is eternal and will immortalize the subject of the poem. The tone of the first quatrain, or first four lines, reflects the extreme confidence of the poet: His “powerful rhyme” is compared to durable marble and solid, gilded memorials that mark the graves of princes. The monuments for the Elizabethan royals and aristocracy often consisted of a full-length portrait of the deceased carved in high relief on the stone cover of a coffin. The sonnet is compared not only to the lastingness of stone but also to an enduring image of the deceased. The poet asserts that his portrait of the young man, written in verse on fragile paper, will outlive even the marble memorials of princes, which will inevitably become neglected, “unswept stone” with the inexorable passage of time. In this sonnet, Shakespeare gives time a character. In this case, time is “sluttish,” suggesting that it is dirty and careless. “Sluttish” can also mean whorish. Time, then, cares for no individual; it is immoral and will, in its slovenly and whorish manner, pass. The grand memorials will become eroded, and the people memorialized will eventually be forgotten. However, the subject of the poem will “shine more bright” than the time-smeared monuments and live not in effigy but in essence in Shakespeare’s verse.

      The second quatrain intensifies the poet’s declaration. The imagery of long-forgotten, cold stone monuments gives way to active, deliberate devastation. The young man will be remembered despite the wrack and ruin of “wasteful war.” When marble statues topple and stone buildings and other “works of masonry” are destroyed, the poetry will live on. Not even the flaming sword of mighty Mars, the god of war himself, is able to “burn/ The living record” of the young man’s memory. The final quatrain contains the powerful image of the young man striding like a Titan through time “’Gainst death and all oblivious enmity.” He will “pace forth” and be not only remembered but also praised in the eyes of “all posterity” even to posterity’s end. His memory will outwear the world and survive “the ending doom,” the Apocalypse itself. The couplet—the final two lines of the poem—draws a conclusion and sums up the ideas that have accumulated with each successive quatrain. The young man will live in “this,” the poet’s verse, until Judgment Day. On that day, the bodies of all humanity are to be resurrected and reunited with the soul, and judgment will be passed as to which souls will suffer in hell and which will rise to heaven. He, too, will face his individual judgment and will “arise” to heaven rather than be damned to hell.

Forms and Devices

      Sonnet 55 is one of a series of 154 sonnets written in the first person—the first 126 are addressed to a young man, and the remaining sonnets (127-154) are addressed to or refer to a dark lady. A rival poet is a third character in the drama of the sonnets. Some scholars believe that the sonnets tell a story that is a reflection of Shakespeare’s private life, while others claim that the sonnets are a literary exercise. In either event, the accumulated sonnets tell a story of love, lust, separation from the beloved, betrayal, repentance, and self-loathing. Sonnet 55 is typical of the form that has become known as the Shakespearean sonnet. Its fourteen lines generally consist of three quatrains (three sets of four lines each), the first of which puts forth a poetic idea that the two following quatrains explore and develop. The quatrains are followed by two final lines (a couplet) that punctuate, draw a conclusion to, or make an ironic comment on the ideas the poet has been exploring in the quatrains. The lines are written in iambic pentameter, and the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg.

        Although each sonnet, as a rule, can stand on its own as an individual poem, it is a good idea to look at the sonnets that surround it. Sonnet 54 sets up Sonnet 55 by bringing up the idea that the essence of a person may be distilled by poetry in the same manner that the essence of a rose may be distilled. After death, the substance of the rose or of the person may perish, but it lives on by virtue of its remaining essence. The first quatrain of Sonnet 55 elaborates the idea that the young man will live perpetually in the poet’s verse. The imagery of fragile flowers gives way to grand marble and elaborate, gilded stone monuments. The final line of the quatrain is thick with alliteration and vivid imagery that tells of “unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.” The contrast implies the passage of a very long time—centuries, perhaps—and reinforces the power of the verse that will eternalize the essence of the young man’s brightly shining self.

          The second quatrain elaborates the idea of the durability of poetry through the use of images of war and destruction. Overturned statues and “broils” (battles) that “root out the work of masonry” summon up the image of a city left in ruins. The introduction of Mars, the ancient god of war, suggests once again the passage of ages. Shakespeare’s use of the word “record” evokes the image of record books and reminds the reader that a poem is written on paper that is easily destroyed by the fires of war. Yet the essence of a poem lies not in the paper upon which it is written but in the ideas and emotions expressed by the poet, who contends that his rhyme is so powerful that it will outlive even this dire threat of destruction.

         The third quatrain puts the idea of eternity in the foreground. The lines speak of death, oblivion, and the “ending doom.” Most people’s memories fade into the oblivious mists of time. However, the young man of the sonnets will keep pace with the time. As time progresses, this praise, this poetry, this essence of the young man will keep pace with its passage. Even to the end of days, when posterity’s posterity has outworn the world, men will remember and praise the young subject of the verse—he will live in their eyes, the window to their souls. The “So” of the final couplet announces the summing up of the ideas and the themes of the sonnet. The phrases “ending doom” and “the judgment” are references to the Christian belief in the Last Judgment. On this day, after the Second Coming of Christ, the world and time will come to a violent end. This suggests that the essence or the life force of the young man, distilled in the poet’s words, will outlive life itself.

Themes and Meanings

      The idea that verse would ensure the poet’s immortality is a common Renaissance theme that came to the Elizabethans via Latin poets such as Ovid in his Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) and Horace in his odes. Shakespeare puts a twist on this idea by claiming that his poetry will guarantee the undying fame of the subject of the poems rather than the author himself. The motif of immortality in the sonnets is expressed differently in the first seventeen poems, in which the poet urges the young man to marry and procreate so that he will continue to live through his children after his death. Beginning with Sonnet 18, and in several sonnets thereafter, the notion that the ineluctable power of poetry will ensure perpetual remembrance is expressed. The relentless passage of time is a major theme of the collected sonnets, and time plays an active role. Time will age the beautiful young man to whom the sonnets are addressed. With the passage of time, summer roses will wilt and die. However, just as the perfume, or “essence,” of the rose can be distilled and kept long after the rose is gone, so too can the essence of the young man, his physical and spiritual beauty, be distilled in poetry and remain long after his death. Poetry is time’s most effective enemy.

      Scholars have gone to great lengths to discover the identity of the young man who was to be immortalized in the sonnets. The dedication of the 1609 printing of the collected sonnets to a “Mr. W. H.” as “the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets” has been cited as evidence that the young man was, in fact, a living person and perhaps a patron of Shakespeare. Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, are persons most often considered as the potential “Mr. W. H.” There has also been great speculation as to the identity of the “dark lady” and the “rival poet” of the sonnets. The great irony is that it is Shakespeare himself who is immortalized in the sonnets and none of the collection’s major players. The “beautiful young man” who was to live until doomsday in the verse of the poet has long been forgotten, while Shakespeare lives on.

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