A reading of a classic Shakespeare sonnet
‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments’ is one of the more famous poems in Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets. The poem is a version of the popular conceit that the poet’s words can make his lover immortal through ‘rhyme’. As commentators are quick to point out, the Bard failed in one sense, in that we cannot say for certain what the name of the addressee of the poem was (the Earl of Pembroke? or the Earl of Southampton?). But the poem is a fine example of the English sonnet, and so repays closer analysis.
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.
First, a quick paraphrase of Sonnet 55 may help to clarify the general meaning of the poem: ‘Marble and the golden monuments built for princes won’t last as long as this powerful poem I write for you. Instead, you will live on in my poetry, and be more famous than if your name were merely embossed in stone that is subject to the ravages of time. When destructive wars cause statues to be toppled and wrecked and broils [quarrels or other disturbances] cause stone masonry to be uprooted from the ground, even the sword belonging to the god of war, Mars, and all the fires of war could not burn you out of history. You will live on, even after death and in the face of oblivion; my praise of you will still find room for posterity to read about you – i.e. all of those people who walk the earth between now and Doomsday and the end of the world. So, until that last day when your body rises from its grave for the Last Judgment, you will live on in this poem I wrote about you, and will be found in lovers’ eyes.’
That last part, as you can see, is difficult to paraphrase. What does Shakespeare mean when he says that the Fair Youth (the addressee of the poem) will ‘dwell in lovers’ eyes’? Don Paterson, in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary– a hugely entertaining commentary on all of the Sonnets – isn’t impressed: surely lovers only have eyes for each other, he reminds us. Stephen Booth, in his detailed annotations on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene), reminds us of the ‘common Renaissance conceit’ of ‘looking babies’, which involved the idea that lovers could see their unborn children when they gazed in each other’s eyes. This doesn’t exactly wrap the matter up: why loved-up youngsters should be seeing the Fair Youth when they look in their partner’s eyes isn’t apparent. But perhaps Shakespeare is playing on the youth as well as the beauty of the Fair Youth, as well as the fact that he will become an archetypal vision of love for all future romancers to call to mind (and to sight). Perhaps. Your interpretations on this sonnet’s concluding line, as ever, are very welcome.
The watchword of Sonnet 55 is ‘live’: what will survive of our love is this poem (to adapt Philip Larkin). Look at how the ‘live’ within ‘outlive’ in the second line resurfaces in ‘living’ (‘living record’), which then paces forth into ‘oblivious’ in the next line, before returning for one final encore in ‘live in’ in the poem’s final line. Isn’t ‘oblivious’, by the way, a bit of a masterstroke? Here it means both ‘unaware’ and ‘pertaining to oblivion’: oblivion is the enemy of the Fair Youth because death eventually vanquishes us all, but the ill will it bears us is, like A. E. Housman’s nature, ‘heartless, witless’. It cares nothing for us. Indeed, it doesn’t even know we exist.
The poem is probably so popular with anthologists and readers because its meaning is so easy to divine (that troublesome last line notwithstanding). But Sonnet 55 is worth picking over and analysing because Shakespeare’s language throws out some curious questions. For the word ‘that’ in the final line, by the way, Booth directs us to read ‘when’ – i.e. ‘until that Day of Judgment when you yourself will arise’.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 55 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’, ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’, and ‘Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing’.