The Shakespearian Sonnets, written circa 1600, follow ideas and beliefs present during the Renaissance (Mary). During this time period, god, religion, and superstition were driving forces of everyday life. Nearly everyone in Shakespeare’s audience believed in a branch of Christianity and the effects of the faith are evident in his writings, especially Sonnet 55. Sonnet 55, sometimes known as “Not marble not the gilded monuments”, emphasizes the true strength of literary works as they stand against the test of time. The poem specifically asserts that the power of love and poetry is stronger than the strength of death through the use of imagery and descriptive writing (Mary). Shakespeare’s famous sonnets followed the standard English sonnet pattern of 3 quatrains with a rhyme scheme of ABAB followed by a rhyming couplet. Each quatrain in the sonnet discusses a new idea regarding time and the relationship between death and immortality.
At the time this poem was written, time, in the eyes of the people, seemed to move toward a single event, the last judgement (Mary). The last judgment is a belief in the Christian faith that all souls will face a day of judgement for their sins. The first quatrain discusses the concept of time wearing on in conjunction with the negative effects of death and decay (Mary). Although time itself cannot be physically manipulated, there is still an ever-present hope burning inside humans to control time. Ultimately, humans long to live forever but as reality dictates, all living things must die. Shakespeare works around this reality by channeling that hope into the immortality of literary works specifically poetry. This message is conveyed early in the poem with the lines, “Nor marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme” (1-2). “This powerful rhyme” (2), is a reference to the poem itself and Shakespeare compares its endurance to that of monuments and grave stones (Almedia). These lines indicate the strength in the poetry itself as monuments and grave stones are items that are considered to exist for a time close to eternity. The discussion of time is continued with phrases such as, “But you shall shine more bright in these contents/ Than upswept stone besmeared with sluttish time” (3-4). Time is a reality that can be marred by the evils of human kind. Although souls live in this everlasting time, they are exempt from the sluttish characteristics that befell others living in time. Sluttish is referring to dirty and uncared for. In this particular instance, time is personified and specifically referred to as such because it does not care who or what it impacts (Almeida).
The strength of the poem is further solidified through images invoked in the reader’s mind of war and destruction. The second quatrain explores the idea that even through destruction, poetry will preserve memories better than “works of masonry”. Even Mars, the almighty god of war, is not and will never be able to destroy the everlasting memory etched forever into both time and beyond time (Almeida). The words are so difficult to destroy because they originate from a place of true power – the human mind (Robisch). It is not the words in the physical sense that hold the everlasting power of eternity; instead, the emotions and images animated by the words are the characteristics that give the poem its endurance (Almeida).
But existence is not the only component to life beyond life. Even after physical death, honor and praise can be awarded to memories. These memories exist in eternal time and will still continue on after the day of “ending doom” (12) (Almeida). Memories, similar to the immortal words, invoke an emotion so strong that despite time “pac[ing] forth” (10), it will hold the same honor and reverence as the day it was created (Mary). The progression of time is an ever-present march but true immortals such as poetry and deep emotion are strong enough to fight off the vices of time. But as Shakespeare approaches the rhyming couplet, he emphasizes the passing of time with the ever-approaching day of “ending doom” (12).
Existence beyond time, an implausible consideration under normal circumstances, is a topic easily approached in this poem in the context of the day of judgement. Because the poem is an eternal being that can overpower time, it also possesses the power to live on in the aftermath of judgement day (Almeida). In the following lines, “So, till Judgment that yourself arise / You live in this, and dwell in lover’s eyes”, the “so” draws the reader directly back to the idea of eternal lasting emotions such as love and the strength of the poem. Additionally, it states that until said day of judgement, the souls of those who have passed will live with their lover’s souls as interpreted from the line, “and dwell in lover’s eyes.” Eyes are significant because they can be perceived as the window to the soul. “This” represents the place where poetry and strong emotions will live until the day of judgement and perhaps even after as well (Almeida)
While physical aspects of life are long lost in the depths of time, love is everlasting (Almeida). This can be attributed to the deep emotional connection love can create. Love, much like poetry, invokes such a profound imprint that it overcomes time along with its powers of decay to survive for all eternity. Much like poetry and true emotions such as love, Shakespeare carefully crafted this message to be applicable to all time periods to add another dimension to his already inspiring literary works.
Robisch, Sean. “Critical Essay on ‘Sonnet 55’.” Poetry for Students, edited by Mary Ruby, vol. 5, Gale, 1999. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=gillsb_ca&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1420043005&it=r&asid=759be247294d9c0b478ade7df1b15edf. Accessed 12 Oct. 2017.
Sonnet 55 By: Almeida, Diane M., Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition, (Library Reference Center)
“Sonnet 55.” Poetry for Students, edited by Mary Ruby, vol. 5, Gale, 1999, pp. 245-258. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=gillsb_ca&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CCX2691300028&asid=d591ddfdf6262874f630bb327c9c56d9. Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.
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