Sonnet 55

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire, shall burn
The living record of your memory:
‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity,
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
     So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
     You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

Footnotes

  1. Because the youth’s image is preserved in the intangible space of “living record,” or people’s minds, it is the idealized version of the youth. He is an imagined perfect essence rather than physical replica.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. In the final line, the “lovers’ eyes” represent the speaker’s own gaze—his love for the fair youth—which will live on past his death through this very sonnet. Additionally, “lovers’ eyes” refers to the archetypal lover: future lovers and readers of poetry who will encounter this sonnet and experience the fair youth through it.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. According to critic Stephen Booth, lovers’ eyes could refer to the popular Renaissance conceit of “looking babies,” in which lovers would see their own reflection in each other’s eyes and think of their progeny—miniaturized versions of themselves reflected in the eyes of their beloved. This imagery returns to the procreation sonnets that start this sequence. Here, however, the speaker displaces actual progeny with his poem: because of his poem, the youth’s image is the progeny that is reproduced within the reflection between lovers’ eyes.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. According to Stephen Booth, the negation within this line — “nor mars,” “nor war’s” — contrive to make the reader unaware that swords cannot burn. Shakespeare uses this syntax in order to demonstrate poetry’s ability to manipulate the reader’s mind.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. By saying "statues overturn" instead of "overturn statues," Shakespeare deftly sharpens the image of statues toppling and tumbling. There are only two words, but there are five syllables, and the alliteration of t sounds in "sta," "tues," and "turn" enhances the image of numerous statues toppling, tumbling, and overturning.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. As the speaker often does in the sequence, he uses the word “this” to refer to the poem itself. The spareness in diction represents a kind of shorthand: the speaker finds this self-referential move unremarkable.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The syntax of these lines obscures the fact that “unswept stone” would not shine. Shining “more bright” therefore becomes a metaphor for enduring memory. By contrast, the “unswept stone” is subject to oblivion. The poem is better able to preserve the youth because it preserves his memory and essence rather than just his image.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. In acknowledging that the youth will “yourself arise,” the speaker acknowledges that the youth will have died. This is the first instance in the sonnet sequence in which the speaker explicitly affirms that his claims to preserve the youth against time are to preserve his essence alone in his poetry. The speaker fully faces the reality of the youth’s eventual physical death.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. “Sluttish” in this context means dirty, careless, or slovenly. The speaker personifies Time as “sluttish” to place Time in a physical realm and suggest that it intentionally contributes to the physical deterioration of the stone. In turn he also justifies why the poem can preserve the youth: Time cannot “besmear” his abstract words as it can physical stone.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. In the Christian tradition, Judgment Day begins with the Resurrection of the Dead. In this event, all of the dead who have ever lived rise from the grave to meet their last judgment before God. This judgment will determine whether or not they go to heaven.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. The rapid, unrelenting passage of time is one of the central themes in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, arising in nearly every poem. The treatment of time in Sonnet 55 is unique in that the speaker alludes to the coming Judgment Day, a point when time ceases. In the Christian tradition, Judgment Day marks the end of the world, when God will sort all souls, living and dead, into their proper places in heaven and hell. This sense of time coming to an end reframes the poet’s mission. The speaker’s task is not to preserve the fair youth’s memory forever, but to do so until Judgment Day.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. This line has a distinctly militaristic tone in its diction and meter. The fair youth will “pace forth,” evoking the image of a soldier marching off to war, which reiterates the aggressive tone and imagery of line 7. The image of the soldier is strengthened by the substantial style of the line which is commensurate with the line’s content. The line is made up of ten monosyllabic words, the majority of which both begin and end with consonant sounds. The heft of the words causes the poem’s pace to slow down, fittingly imitating a march.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. “Unswept” in this line suggests that someone was supposed to sweep, or care for the stone of these princes’ monuments. Because the monument goes “unswept” the line suggests that the memory of this great prince has faded. It was not preserved by the stone image.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. “Contents” forms a pun, referring to both the content of the poem itself as well as the state of happiness and contentment that one will experience in reading it. The use of such wordplay becomes self-reflexive. Theoretically, such a pun contributes to the quality of the poem, and joy the reader will draw from it.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. With “shall you,” the speaker seems to be ordering the youth into action. As the creator of this poetic reality, the speaker is indeed in charge. Yet the choice to use “you” instead of “thou” maintains a respectful tone that places the youth socially above the speaker.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. The musicality of the phrase “shall shine more bright” serves as an example of the “shin[ing]” nature of the poem. “Shall shine” share a clear alliterative bond. The hard i sound in “shine” finds its repetition in “bright,” as does the r in more. The phrase is effective both aesthetically and rhetorically. The line is beautiful to the ear, and its beauty proves its own point about how brightly the poem’s subject shines.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. The phrase “oblivious enmity” bears two meanings. Here “enmity” encompasses all of the destructive forces listed so far: natural decay, neglect, and war. These forces are oblivious in the sense that they are ignorant of the importance of preserving the memory of the fair youth. The enmity is also oblivious in the sense they they are bound for oblivion. The neglectful, harmful people the speaker refers to are doomed to be forgotten.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. Because the youth’s image is preserved in the intangible space of “living record,” or people’s minds, it is the idealized version of the youth. He is an imagined perfect essence rather than physical replica.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. Throughout the sonnet sequence, it is common for the speaker to make reference to the poem itself as a vehicle of memorialization. Sonnet 55 is notable in that the speaker makes this move in the opening quatrain, immediately cluing the reader into the poetry’s central thematic role.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. The second line begins with a repetition of the end rhyme of the first line. “Monuments” finds a near-perfect rhyme in “princes,” whose first syllable lands on the line’s first stress. By injecting the opening couplet with additional rhymes, the speaker bolsters his claim that this sonnet is a “powerful rhyme.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  21. The speaker claims that effective poetry represents a “living record” of its subject. This is his strongest argument for poetry’s power over stone and statue. Poetry is, after all, both a written and oral form. The idea is that a “powerful rhyme” such as this will live on because it exists as both written and “living record,” rendering it impermeable to the destructive powers of war and natural decay. The musicality of the previous line, with its rich internal rhymes, bolsters this argument for the poem’s effectiveness as an oral form.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  22. The poem opens with a negative construction, which underscores the central argument. The speaker claims that a poem is a more effective means of memorializing a person than a stone statue or monument. By opening with “not,” the speaker compellingly undermines marble and monuments.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff