Sonnet 55 builds up on Horace’s theme of poetry outlasting physical monuments to the dead. In Horace’s poetry, the poet is himself immortalised by his poetry but in this sonnet, Shakespeare seeks to build a figurative monument to his beloved, the fair lord. The fair lord is not described or revealed is any way in this sonnet. Instead, the sonnet just addresses the idea of immortality through verse. The ravages of time is a recurrent theme in the sonnets of Shakespeare. So sonnet 55 is one of the most famous works of Shakespeare and a notable deviation from other sonnets in which he appears insecure about his relationships and his self-worth. Here we find an impassioned burst of confidence as the poet claims to have the power to keep his friend’s memory alive evermore.
1 – 4 lines – (Not marble …………………. sluttish time) The first stanza talks about how time will not destroy the poem, though it will destroy the world’s most magnificent structures. He wishes to say that poetry is stronger than these structures. At the very beginning, the poet says that whether it is marble or gold plated monuments of princes, all will get destroyed but the magnificence of his poetry will live. The subject of poetry will remain bright and will shine forever in comparison to a neglected stone monument which is spoilt with Time. Time is compared to a slut who loses her glow and beauty with time. Shakespeare compares Time unfavourably to a female subject.
5 – 8 lines – (when wasteful …………………. memory) These lines begin with a new idea. Shakespeare has so far spoken of two destructive forces : time and war. He is here describing war destroying stone structures, which relates back to the ‘marble’ and ‘gilded monuments’ in line 1, that likewise do not last. The poet says that when destructive wars will take place, they will destroy statues also and due to its tumult all the work of the masons will be destroyed. Even the Sword of Mars, God of war, or the destructive fires of war will be able to destroy your memory. The poet is basically saying that even wars will not destroy the written memories of your life for they will survive even after deadly wars.
Lines 9 – 14 – (Gainst death …………………. Lover’s eyes) This stanza does not talk about survival, but of human appreciation. The poet continues to praise his subject. There is still a suggestion of survival, but survival of human appreciation and not of the verse itself. Doom refers to the Judgement day, suggesting that this poetic record of his subject will survive and be praised to the end of time. Slight deviation of the metre in the words ‘‘Even in’’ creates emphasis for this permanency.
The poet is saying that death and enmity destroys everything but poetry written on the subject will survive, will move ahead, find place and will be immortalised for all generations to come. Everything else will be judged on the Judgement Day. The ending couplet is a summary of the survival theme. The couplet not only summarises the rest of the sonnet, but also seems to contradict itself. ‘‘Judgement’’ goes with the talk of the judgement day in the last stanza, but implies that the subject is alive and will be judged on that day, but ‘ dwelling in lover’s eyes’’ suggest that the subject is love itself. Thus Shakespeare seems to consider the subject so lovely that he is a personification of love, which could be conquered and to which no poetry can do justice. So the theme of the sonnet is that the subject will be honoured forever in the verses, though the verses are unworthy of them.
- outlive : live afterwards
- rhyme : poetry
- overturn : destroy
- room : place, space
- dwell : live
- ‘Gilded monuments’: Shakespeare personified these by giving them life–spans.
- Posterity : It is given a human characteristic of ‘sight’
- Mars : war is given the title of ‘mars’. This is rooted in Greek mythology, as Mars is the God of war.
- Time : as a slut. Just as the beauty of a slut undergoes great changes, so does time usher in great changes.
This means exaggeration, but too much exaggeration which sometimes becomes unbelievable. In this poem, the poet claims that no amount of time or change can obliterate the words he writes, shall make his reader understand the awesome power as he as a wordsmith wields.