Sonnet 65 by William Shakespeare

The Poem

     The opening quatrain of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 asks how beauty can resist that power in nature which destroys brass, stone, earth, and the sea, since beauty is less durable and powerful than any of those. The earth and sea together cannot withstand death, the dismal (“sad”) state that overpowers everything in nature. In the third line, mortality becomes “this rage”—a violent anger, even a kind of madness, that opposes a most fragile supplicant, beauty. If the earth itself is no match for this force, beauty seems to have no hope of lasting, since its strength is no more than a flower’s.

    The second quatrain repeats the opening question, beauty now characterized by another of nature’s insubstantial and temporary forms, “summer’s honey breath,” which the poet sees as the victim of an assault by a “wreckful siege” in the form of “battering days.” The “earth” alluded to in the opening line is represented here as “rocks impregnable,” and brass has been replaced by “gates of steel.” Neither of these substantial forms can withstand time’s battering and corrosive force. Though asking a question, the speaker implies that any resistance to time is doomed and, further, that natural things are in constant battle with a force that nothing survives, least of all something as evanescent as summer’s breath.

     The third quatrain begins with an expostulation that expresses the poet’s feelings as he confronts the prospect of time’s onslaught: “O fearful meditation!” Even flight is futile, for beauty, now represented as a jewel, cannot escape being encased finally and forever in “Time’s chest.” Time is then characterized as the swift runner whose foot cannot be held back. No outside force—no “hand”—can or will reach out and rescue beauty from time’s onward thrust. At the close of the third quatrain, beauty is not only a doomed supplicant but also a helpless victim of time’s plundering. At this point, the poet appears to have accepted the inevitable annihilation of beauty by time’s relentless onslaught.

     The final couplet offers hope, however—the written word. Mere ink, imbued with the poet’s love, offers the only defense against Time’s annihilating power, for the poet’s words have the miraculous ability to reflect beauty’s splendor in a timeless state.

Forms and Devices

      The sonnet’s fourteen lines form three quatrains and a concluding couplet, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Known as the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet, this arrangement differs from the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet in adopting a different rhyme scheme and dividing the sestet (the final six lines) into a quatrain and a couplet. The third quatrain addresses the poem’s subject somewhat differently from the first two quatrains (which correspond to the octave of the Italian sonnet), and the couplet offers a final comment on, or a summary of, the foregoing argument. A typical line consists of five stresses, or ten syllables, called iambic pentameter: “Since bráss, nor stóne, nor eárth, nor boúndless séa.” An extra syllable is occasionally added to the line, as in lines 2, 4, and 10. Within this highly patterned world, Sonnet 65 achieves myriad effects. 

      Wordplay creates much of the poem’s irony by combining multiple meanings into one word. The “sad” in line 2 characterizes the personified “mortality,” sad because it is his duty to destroy things; at the same time, “sad” expresses the poet’s own feelings regarding this destructive force. In the third line, “this rage” ironically plays on the idea that mortality, usually thought of as a dormant state, is a violent passion, even a madness. Shakespeare twists the traditional conventions by assigning such a passion, not to the lover, but to the force that destroys beauty. Irony is implicit, too, in the reference to “boundless sea,” which is nevertheless “bound” by “mortality.” Though the tone of the sonnet may not be entirely serious—Shakespeare seems close to mocking the tradition of the forlorn lover in the line “O fearful meditation! where, alack”—any playful spirit the poem may have is sobered by the ominous nature of the subject.

      The poem’s principal imagery focuses on the various forms given the chief antagonists, “Time” and beauty, though beauty is depicted in images that suggest insubstantial form (a mere “plea” and “summer’s honey breath”), a passive hardness (“jewel”), and a helpless victim (Time’s “spoil”). Time is personified variously, too, as a force that “decays,” keeps jewelry in a chest, has a swift foot, and plunders his victims. When the poem wants to suggest the delicate, impermanent nature of beauty, imagery is deft—“flower…summer’s honey breath.” When it wants images of strength, it is prolific—“wreckful siege…battering days…rocks impregnable…gates of steel.”. Numerous sound effects underscore the poem’s doleful tone. Repetition of words (such as “nor” and “O” and structures—the five questions, for example—suggests the relentless assault of “this rage” as well as the urgency of the speaker’s mingled hope and fear. Apt alliteration—“steel so strong” and “none, unless”—and vowel sounds reinforce the meaning. The sound of “brass” and “stone” suggests more durable qualities than those of a flower and honey breath, and the phrases “rocks impregnable” and “gates of steel” sound “harder” than the more mellifluous sounds of “miracle have might” and “my love.”

Themes and Meanings

       Shakespeare’s central theme is the opposition between the transitory, delicate nature of beauty and the devastating effect on beauty of mortality and its principal instrument, time. The opening questions seem rhetorical, indirectly arguing the poet’s conviction that beauty is no match for aging and death. The final two lines dispel the gloomy predictions implicit in the questions, however, by pointing to the power of the written word to sustain its subject—in this case, beauty. As the poem advances through the first two quatrains, the changes in the images of time suggest an increase in the implacable strength of time, which only “o’er-sways” in the second line but turns to a “rage” and then a “wreckful siege of battering days” attacking such impressive things as “rocks impregnable” and “gates of steel.”

      The final two lines, by opposing “black ink” with the light which the poet’s love emits, leave the reader with the central conflict of the poet’s vision: light (beauty) is opposed by darkness (black ink), and therefore utter annihilation. The balancing imagery of the final line suggests a resolution to this conflict and so ends the poem on a bright note, literally on the word “bright” itself: The poet’s love, expressed in this written sonnet, is the one force that can successfully oppose time and death. The word “still” in the last line introduces a paradox. If “my love” is “still,” meaning lifeless, it cannot “shine,” yet it does, or might; if it is indeed motionless, it cannot “still” be shining, yet it may, in “black ink,” and in that form, it can forever oppose the destructive motion implicit in the phrase “this rage.” The poet’s skill is the only force that can reverse the effects of aging and stop time’s forward motion, which carries all things to their death. The poet’s hand becomes the “strong hand” (line 12) that can indeed hold time’s “swift foot back.” The surprise is that the strength is not physical but poetic.

       A more subtle surprise is that, while appearing to address what male lovers are expected to address, a beautiful woman, Shakespeare here focuses on beauty, perhaps in keeping with the poem’s general air of indirection—rhetorical questions develop the poet’s subject all the way to the final couplet in place of direct argument. The poem seems to suggest that to be any more direct, by addressing his beloved directly, he would “expose” her to time’s onslaught. By remaining as “hidden” and insubstantial as “Time’s best jewel,” the object of his love may be saved. If the “black ink” of his poem draws a curtain of darkness before the face of his beloved, her beauty may nevertheless shine through the love that the poem expresses. In keeping with the delicate indirection of the poem, the poet makes only slight references to the sexual aspect of his love, principally in the third quatrain, where “impregnable” subtly suggests where the poet’s mind is going—time is a ravager of beautiful women, one way or another. Hints of ravishment continue as the poet references “gates of steel” and concludes in his using “spoil” (plundering) that beauty cannot “forbid.” The structure of the final line reflects brilliantly the poem’s resolution, the inky blackness of annihilating time at one end of the line and, at the other, the redemptive light of the poet’s love. Between these two states is the poet’s “love,” the fulcrum that forever separates and balances them.

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