Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare

Today being Wednesday, what say you to a little bit of the Bard?

Sonnet 55
by William Shakespeare

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 besmeared 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.


*broils: tumults, battles
**quick: probably intended for its double meaning: 1) fast-burning and 2) the sort that burns something to its quick, or its very heart/center

First, let me say how very much I love the line about "unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time", "sluttish" being a word which here means "disgustingly dirty", and not actually something sexual. Second, let me say that this poem conjured for me an image of fallen statues, which naturally called up "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which I discussed back in April as part of my National Poetry Month posts, with its image of trunkless legs standing in the desert.

I suppose I ought to take notice of the form and meaning - a sonnet, of course, and a Shakespearean sonnet, of course, written in iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The first eight lines are grandstanding, in a way: "Monuments shall fall into ruin, but not your reputation" is the gist of it. The next six lines take a slight turn (or volta) when the focus shifts away from monuments falling to wars and the ravages of time and more to the active nature of the poem and its ability to preserve the memory and reputation of the Fair Youth: "My poems about you will keep your memory - and therefore the essence of you - alive until Doomsday".

Check out the use of personification of war through the invocation of Mars, the Roman god of war, and how Shakespeare claims that Mars is no match for poetry. In fact, he claims that poetry will outlast war, while the physical things built by men will not.

The final couplet is an extremely pithy summary of what he's been saying all along: "So, until judgment day, you live in my poem, and as a result, your spirit is kept alive in that of all lovers."

Pretty bold claim, and yet who am I to argue? Four hundred years or so after it was written, this poem is still around and we're still talking about it and about Shakespeare's obvious love (platonic, romantic, sexual, or otherwise) for the Fair Youth, whose identity can only be guessed at (although many believe it to be Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton). Still, that Fair Youth's spirit is kept alive, is it not, by these poems? And while it would be tempting to dismiss Shakespeare's talk of "powerful rhyme" and his claims of keeping the Youth's reputation and memory alive until Doomsday as hubris - and I'm nearly certain he took crap for it during his lifetime and was undoubtedly accused of puffery, to say the least - it would seem that the Bard might be having the last laugh. For while it is not yet time for the final judgment (best as I can tell), there are plenty of folks still admiring Shakespeare's "powerful rhyme".

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