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Shakespeare Sonnet 55

Updated on November 17, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 55

In sonnet 55, the speaker addresses the poem itself. Readers have observed that this speaker often addresses his muse or his own talent. Often he obsesses over the writing process, especially during times of dryness that result in writer's block. However, this clever speaker always has the resourcefulness to overcome any blocking by simply addressing the issue. It becomes especially dramatic when the speaker addresses his poem.

This speaker always has a multifaceted purpose for each dramatic act. He knows his poems are praiseworthy; thus, he sets out to offer them the highest praise he can muster. The crafty speaker thus insists on allowing his poems to become aware that they are eternal because they are replete with truth and beauty. These outstanding, praiseworthy sonnets will outlast even the strongest building materials because they are born of inner truth which is based on soul reality.

Sonnet 55

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rime*;
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 judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

*In the original Shakespeare sonnets, the spelling of the poetic device is always "rime," as the first published edition in 1609 attests. The Shakespeare writer was composing his sonnets two centuries before Dr. Samuel Johnson erroneously introduced the spelling "rhyme" into English. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error."

Reading of Sonnet 55

Commentary

The speaker is again praising his poem. He addresses the sonnet directly in order to both praise the poem and to laud his own ability to immortalize his subjects.

First Quatrain: The Power of Poetry

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

The speaker of Shakespeare sonnet 55 is proclaiming that his poem will remain more powerful than "marble" and "gilded monuments." No prince has anything on a poet when ringing out truth is concerned: "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rime." The poet/speaker believes strongly in his own sonnets. This speaker is certain that his poetic creations will last longer than the stone statues which become "besmear’d with sluttish time."

A stone or marble monument merely becomes some obscene gesture, as it is contrasted with the written monumental creations of the poet. These written tributes to beauty and truth will remain throughout eternity. This poet/speaker understands that truth remains inspired by the soul; thus it will remain throughout eternity.

Second Quatrain: A Living Record

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.

The second quatrain finds the speaker asserting that nothing can obliterate, "The living record of your memory." The memory of the poem remains constant and everlasting. As "wasteful war" might "overturn" "statues" and "broils root out the work of masonry," still a poem remains ethereal. A poem once written and recorded will maintain itself as a permanent artifact recorded in memory. "The living record" continues to include much more than just paper and ink. "The living record" will always include the power of thought which has been born in each human thinking, mind.

A seer/poet who is true to his own vision will create that living record in his poems, and each poem will remind his fellows that truth is inborn. Truth is beautiful; it is also eternal and cannot be ambushed, even as "wasteful war shall statues overturn, / And broils root out the work of masonry."

Third Quatrain: Truth and Beauty

'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.

The poem that contains beauty and truth will remain throughout eternity. Such a poetic piece of art will remain, "'Gainst death." No enemy will be able to gain success against that soul-inspired truth.

The speaker then asserts, "your praise shall still find room / Even in the eyes of all posterity / That wear this world out to the ending doom." As readers have observed many times before in his sonnets, this talented speaker has complete confidence that his poetic creations will continue to enjoy lasting fame, as they circulate far and wide across the landscape and down through the centuries.

Future generations of readers, who are the "eyes of all posterity," will be appreciating, reading, studying, and commenting on these works. The speaker possesses an ever deepening faith in his own talent. This confident speaker remains certain that future readers will continue to remain fans of his works: "[e]ven in the eyes of all posterity / That wear this world out to the ending doom."

The Couplet: This Speaker's Prescience

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

Finally, the speaker tops his assertions by insisting that the beauty and truth dramatized in his poems will become part of the culture of future generations. The speaker's future readers will not only appreciate his works but those works will become part and parcel of the culture. This speaker is prescient to the fact that his works will enjoy many allusions, and quotations will abound that point to the truth and beauty of his tireless efforts.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The De Vere Society is  dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford | Source

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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