AD's English Literature : Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 55 (Not marble, nor the gilded monuments ): Shakespeare Seeks to Build a Figurative Monument to His Beloved, the Fair Lord

Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 55 (Not marble, nor the gilded monuments ): Shakespeare Seeks to Build a Figurative Monument to His Beloved, the Fair Lord


Not marble, nor the gilded monuments a
 Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;b
But you shall shine more bright in these contents a
Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.b 4

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.d 8

'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
 Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room f 
Even in the eyes of all posteritye
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
f 12

So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
g 14

The ancient poets (Ovid, Horace etc.) and to some extent, their renaissance imitators made certain distinctions between different kinds of transience, which is not found in the sonnets of Shakespeare. In such ancient poetry, we very often find a distinction between Ovid’s all – devouring Time and Horace’s brief span of Time allotted to humans. There is also a further distinction between the brevity of human life in general and the still briefer brevity of youth and beauty. However,  Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 55 builds on Horace’s theme of poetry outlasting physical monuments to the dead: Exegi monumentum aere perennius / Regalique situ pyramidum altius … / Non omnis moriar. This phrase translates to, “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze / And taller than the regal peak of the pyramids… / I shall never completely die. In Horace’s Ode 3.30, it is himself who will be immortalized by his poetry, but in the case of Sonnet No. 55 Shakespeare seeks to build a figurative monument to his beloved, the Fair Lord, “Mr. W. H.”.

However, the Fair Lord is not described or revealed in any way in his sonnet; instead, the sonnet just addresses this problem with the assurance that it does not matter , since “you live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes. ” It is enough that the  Fair Lord lives in “lovers’ eyes or the eyes of the poet and presumably everyone else who sees him. The reference to judgment day in lines 12-13 also suggests that perhaps the identity of the fair lord will be revealed then. This theme of immortality through verse is common in Shakespearean sonnets. For example, in Sonnet No.18, the speaker assures the fair lord that he will not die, “when in eternal lines to time thou growest.”   Sonnet No. 19 admits that Time will eventually destroy the fair lord by disfiguring him and killing him, but ends with a challenge: “Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young.” Sonnet No. 65 bemoans that fleeting beauty stands no chance against the ravages of time, but hopes “That in black ink my love may love may still shine bright.”

The ravages of Time is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets; often it is addressed in terms of its unavoidable effect on beauty and youth, specifically that of the Fair Lord, but here its effects on status and monuments is the focus. “Wasteful war, “”broils,” the sword of Mars (the god of war), and “war’s quick fire” are seen as the chief causes of the destruction of statues and monuments, in addition to “sluttish time.” Here, “sluttish” means lewd and whorish, and characterizes time as apathetic to the orderliness of the world.

Line 13 of  Sonnet No. 55,  refers to “the judgment that yourself arise,” or judgment day. In religious tradition, judgment day is the point at which all souls, even those that have been dead for a long time (including that of the fair lord) will “arise” to be judged by God. This day is also referred to as “the ending doom” in line 12; “posterity” or future generations, live in the world until that final day when everyone is judged. After that day, there is no further reason for immortalizing anyone in poetry.

 Ref: 1.

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