Today, another of Shakespeare's sonnets addressed to the Fair Youth. This one is similar in some ways to Sonnets 55 ("Nor marble, nor the gilded monuments"), which I analyzed before, which falls into the "there's nothing permanent on the face of this earth" argument, but it extends it to the impermanence of things found in nature. It also has a bit in common with those sonnets in which Shakespeare plays around with legal terminology: the mentions of holding a plea and an action are a play on words, using legal terms as well as making sense without resort to that particular level of analysis. As in, say, the closing of the end of Sonnet 18 ("So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee"), the closing of this party expresses an intention to memorialize the loved one for eternity, but instead of expressing confidence that it will be so, he expresses only hope that it may be so - it's a qualified statement.
by William Shakespeare
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
Form: Shakespearean sonnet, of course, written in iambic pentameter and using the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
Analysis: The word "oversways" is not widely used in modern parlance, but think of it as "trumps", in a way. Brass, stone, earth and sea have power, but death's power is stronger than all of them.
Shakespeare employs an interesting back and forth in the first two quatrains (four-line segments are called quatrains). The first two lines of the first and second two of the second are about rocks and brass and things built by man (as well as natural elements like earth and sea) and how they change over time. The second two lines of the first quatrain and the first two of the second one are about something smaller and far more fragile: Beauty, which has only the strength of a flower, and can be so easily trampled. How, Shakespeare asked, can something so fragile stand the test of time when big, strong things like rock and metal can't manage it?
He develops that theme more fully into the third quatrain, asking what the best way to preserve beauty is. How can he make some lasting record of the Fair Youth's beauty? And is there some way to keep Time from ruining whatever he produces? In the end, he prays for a miracle - that somehow, his written record of his love for the Fair Youth will last through the generations.