William Shakespeare 1609
Shakespeare wrote a total of 154 sonnets; the first 126 being addressed to a “Young Man” or “Friend” while sonnets 127 to 152 are addressed to a mysterious “Dark Lady,” possibly the poet’s mistress. In “Sonnet 55,” addressed to the young friend, the speaker of the poem claims that his “powerful rhyme” will outlast “marble” and “gilded monuments,” keeping the youth’s memory alive until the Last Judgement. The poem makes a defiant statement about the power of poetry and love over death while, ironically, deriving much of its poetic interest through images of oblivion.
Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small market town in a rural region north of London, England. He had four sisters, only one of whom lived to adulthood, and three younger brothers, all of whom survived childhood, although none outlived Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare’s father was a merchant who devoted himself to public service, attaining the position of bailiff and justice of the peace by 1568. Biographers have surmised that the elder Shakespeare’s social standing and relative prosperity at this time would have enabled his son to attend the local grammar school in Stratford, where he would have received an education dominated by the study of Latin and the reading of such authors as Cicero, Ovid, Terence,
and Plautus, along with study of the Bible. At the age of eighteen, Shakespeare married Ann Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later, followed by twins, Hammet and Judith, in 1585. At an undetermined time following the birth of his twins, Shakespeare joined a professional acting company and traveled to London, where he began writing as well as acting. His first plays, three parts of the Henry VI history cycle, were presented in 1589–91. Shakespeare further established himself when he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company formed in 1594 under the patronage of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. This group began performing at the playhouse known simply as the Theatre and at the Cross Keys Inn, moving to the Swan Theatre on Bankside in 1596 when municipal authorities banned the public presentation of plays within the limits of the city of London. Three years later, Shakespeare and other members of the company financed the building of the most famous of all Elizabethan playhouses, the Globe Theatre. By then the foremost London company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men also performed at the royal court on numerous occasions. It is widely believed that Shakespeare wrote many of his sonnets during the 1590s, although they were not published until 1609. The specific inspiration for the sonnets remains the subject of controversy and speculation.
In 1603 King James I granted the Lord Chamberlain’s Men a royal patent, and the company’s name was altered to the King’s Men to reflect the king’s direct patronage. Records indicate that Shakespeare’s company remained the most favored acting company during the Jacobean era, averaging a dozen performances at the king’s court each year. In addition to public performances at the Globe Theatre, the King’s Men also played at the private Blackfriars Theatre, where many of Shakespeare’s late plays were first staged. The playwright profited handsomely from his long career in the theater and invested in real estate, purchasing properties in both Stratford and London. As early as 1596 he had attained sufficient status to be granted a coat of arms and the accompanying right to call himself a gentleman. By 1610, with his reputation as the leading English dramatist unchallenged, Shakespeare is believed to have retired to Stratford, although business interests brought him to London on occasion. He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in the chancel of Trinity Church in Stratford.
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than upswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn, 5
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 10
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.
References to “marble” and “gilded monuments / Of princes” combine images of lasting beauty with those of death. “Gilded monuments,” for example, suggests the gilded tombs of English monarchs such as that of Henry V in Westminster Abbey.
Shakespeare states that the recipient of the poem—the “Young Man”—will receive more glory through his sonnet than the Princes who have mere “marble” or “unswept stone” to mark their graves. Whereas Shakespeare evokes beauty and grandeur in the opening two lines, he quickly turns to images of degradation, corruption, and decay with the phrase “besmeared with sluttish time.” Here, time is personified as filthy and promiscuous, “besmearing” even the marble monuments that are supposed to remain untouched by the passage of time.
The motif of decay over time now becomes more violent and immediate; here Shakespeare evokes images of human destruction through “wasteful war” and “broils” (quarrels), which can easily “overturn” or ruin any statue, monument, or stone edifice created in an attempt to immortalize an individual.
Shakespeare heightens his use of war imagery with a reference to Mars, the ancient Roman god of war. These lines assert that not even fire and the god of war can erase the memory of the Young Man. The phrase “living record of your memory” is cryptic, as it either suggests that the poem is somehow a “living record” or points to other aspects of the Young Man’s life as evidence of a “living record.” For example, the poet’s relationship with the Young Man may itself be a “living record” of the Young Man’s memory—one more meaningful than a monument.
In the face of both death and a force of hatred that either wants the Young Man to be forgotten or is oblivious to life, the youth will still somehow be appreciated. The word “pace” suggests a calm steadiness that contrasts with the violence of preceding imagery while also creating alliteration and assonance with the word “praise.”
The poet again evokes images of decay and decline with the notion that future generations will “wear this world out to the ending doom.” “Ending doom” also suggests the Biblical idea of the Last Judgement—the end of the world and the end of time. Contrasting with this apocalyptic imagery is the idea that the youth will be remembered despite this inevitable “doom.”
- Audio recordings of Shakespeare’s sonnets include Living Literature: The Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Crown Publishers, Inc.; Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Spoken Arts, Inc.; and Shakespeare: The Sonnets, by Argo Records.
- Video productions of Shakespeare’s sonnets include Selected Sonnets (1988) by Films for the Humanities, in which critics including Stephen Spender and A. L. Rowse read and comment on Sonnets 65, 66, 94, and 127; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, another Films for the Humanities production featuring recitation of selected sonnets by such actors as Ben Kingsley and Claire Bloom; and The Sonnets of William Shakespeare (1993) by Goldcrest Films for the Humanities, in which fifteen sonnets are performed and analyzed.
The phrase “till the judgement that yourself arise” extends the motif of the “Last Judgement,” by imagining the youth “arising”—resurrected from the dead on judgement day. Until then, Shakespeare suggests, the youth will “live in this”—the poem—while also dwelling “in lovers’ eyes.” “Lovers’ eyes” may either refer to the poet’s affection for the young man, or to the public who will admire the image of the young man presented in the poem. It is interesting to note, however, that in Shakespeare’s works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “lovers’ eyes” are often portrayed as gullible and easily deluded.
In “Sonnet 55,” the speaker of the poem claims that his “powerful rhyme” will outlast “marble” and “gilded monuments,” keeping the youth’s memory alive until the Last Judgement. As in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the passage of time is a major theme in “Sonnet 55.” Time is portrayed predominantly
Topics for Further Study
- Translate “Sonnet 55” into modern, casual speech. Is the poem now easier to understand? How, if at all, has the meaning or quality of the poem changed now that the language has changed?
- How would you characterize the poet’s attitude toward life and death in “Sonnet 55?” What aspects of the language of the poem suggest this attitude or philosophy?
- Write a poem in free verse addressing someone you admire. How does your poem differ from sonnet form? Now attempt to restructure your poem into Shakespearean sonnet form, observing the techniques used in “Sonnet 55.”
as a negative force connected with death and decay. Line 3, for example, personifies time as a “sluttish” character who “besmears” human attempts to achieve immortality by building stone monuments. The poem reflects a common view during the Elizabethan age that the entire world was in a process of gradual decay and decline as humanity moved through time toward the Last Judgment—the Judeo-Christian idea of apocalypse and an end of time.
Death and Immortality
“Sonnet 55” is predominantly concerned the human desire to be remembered and immortalized in an attempt to overcome death. The poem suggests a strong awareness of the inevitability of death; images of the aging effects of time and the destructive results of “wasteful war” are emphasized. Worse than death, suggests “Sonnet 55,” are the forces that conspire to insure that an individual is forgotten, such as “war’s quick fire” and the “all oblivious enmity” of other people. The anxiety running throughout the poem is not merely due to a fear of death, but the idea that all traces of the self might be completely erased from the earth. The poem rejects traditional human attempts at preserving the memory of an individual through the building of monuments, statues, or buildings as doomed to either decay through the effects of time or to ruin through the violence of war. The sonnet itself (“this powerful rhyme”), however, is upheld as a vehicle of immortality that will not be destroyed. “You live in this,” declares the poet in the last line of the sonnet, suggesting that the youth to which the poem is addressed can somehow be preserved through the poem, which is immune to physical destruction. The last line of the poem also connects love with eternity and immortality by asserting that despite death, the youth will always “dwell in lovers’ eyes.” This phrase suggests that while the body and self are lost and forgotten, love is eternal; the youth will somehow “live” in the eyes of all lovers who might read the poem throughout time. While “Sonnet 55” takes a defiant stand against oblivion, the speaker’s attitude toward death can be seen as ultimately ambiguous. L. C. Knights in his 1934 essay on “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” commented: “[I]n all the Sonnets [which promise some form of immortality], it is the contemplation of change, not the boasting and defiance, that produces the finest poetry; they draw their value entirely from the evocation of that which is said to be defied or triumphed over.”
A sonnet is a fourteen-line poetic form originally developed by the Italian poet Petrarch. The rhyme scheme for a traditional Petrarchan sonnet is as follows: abba, abba, cdc, dcd. After sonnet form was adopted by the English during the mid-sixteenth century, variations in this rhyme scheme began to appear. Shakespeare in particular is noted for manipulating sonnet form in new ways that allow for greater flexibility, variety, and expressive power than that possible with Petrarchan sonnet form. Maintaining the basic fourteen-line sonnet structure, Shakespeare employed three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet as follows: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The variation in rhyme often mirrors the shifting thoughts and moods of the poet. In “Sonnet 55,” for example, the initial concern with preserving the memory of the youth is gradually transformed into imagery that evokes his resurrection at the Last Judgement.
Shakespeare lived during the Renaissance, an era regarded as an age of discovery and human enlightenment
Compare & Contrast
- 1587: Excessive mortality occurs in Stratford, England due to an illness called “the burning ague.” Some scholars have linked the “ague” with malnutrition, observing that the diet of poor people in England steadily deteriorated throughout the sixteenth century. By 1597 there were famine conditions in Stratford, England and burial rates had risen fifty-two percent.
1845-1849: The great potato famines strike Ireland. A million die from starvation and disease. The famines were primarily caused by excessive reliance upon a single food crop.
Today: North Korea is in the midst of a famine that started with a 1995 flood that ruined crops and killed livestock. Despite international relief efforts, in January of 1999, the United Nations reported that the country would need at least a million pounds of donated food.
- Elizabethan Era: For selling a volume of poetry to a printer or publisher, an author might receive only 2 pounds payment; alternatively, he might be forced to finance the printing on his own. The system of patronage—support from a wealthy individual—was essential for the economic survival of a writer or artist.
Today: Capitalism, rather than patronage largely governs the publication of literature. With the exception of works financed by grants from government organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, writers must increasingly prove to publishers that their works will sell to a mass audience. Publishers pay authors a negotiable advance, after which the author is usually entitled to a royalty fee—a share of the profits. Few poets are able to support themselves solely through their art, although there are many outlets for the publication and distribution of poetry.
- 1588: King Philip II of Spain sends the Spanish Armada, one of the largest naval fleets ever assembled, north to conquer England. Largely due to faulty equipment and stormy weather, Spain’s conquest was defeated.
1981: England engages in a military dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. England is victorious due to superior military might.
- 1586: Queen Elizabeth achieves something akin to celebrity status by distributing numerous miniature portraits of herself. Although aged at the time, the portraits portrayed the Queen as youthful and beautiful. A “cult” of veneration subsequently surrounded her name and image; some scholars have likened this adoration to the attitude of pre-Reformation Catholics toward images of the Virgin Mary.
1990s: The media, rather than the portraits or statues of Shakespeare’s age, is the source of fame in modern society. Politicians achieve fame and popularity largely through media images, although the deluge and range of information provided by the media, particularly in the United States, makes the maintenance of an image of perfection virtually impossible. Fame as it manifests itself in movie stars was largely an invention of the early silent film industry after it was discovered that people would flock to see films based on the appearance of a particular actor or actress. Fame became an increasingly important commodity as the “star system” replaced the “studio system” in Hollywood, with the most famous actors and actresses now often wielding immense power over which films get produced.
that ushered in the rise of modern science. While God, religion, and magic/superstition were at the center of human thought during the Middle Ages, humankind gradually became the focus of ideas during the Renaissance, with an increasing emphasis on man’s ability to reason and to control his environment. The simultaneously magical and devout worldview of Medieval times, however, did not simply disappear all at once. The rise in witchcraft trials in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, provides evidence of the overlapping of two different worldviews—one scientific, the other superstitious. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, often suggest the presence of both medieval and modern/humanistic outlooks—a duality that characterized the Renaissance.
For many people, the Renaissance was also an era of suffering due to the spread of illness and economic hardship. For example, the bubonic plague spread through England several times during the sixteenth century, and mortality rates in England during the Elizabethan age indicate a life expectancy of about thirty-five to forty years. Although this life expectancy was considerably less than that of the modern era, it was, however, higher than that of most other countries in Europe during that time. Changing economic conditions as well as illness were a source of anxiety for the poor during the late sixteenth century. While members of the upper classes widely experienced the Renaissance as an age of opulence, with vast sums of money being spent on elaborate fashions, lavish entertainment, and the building of large manor houses, there was also an increasing divide between rich and poor and a rising population of homeless people, or “vagrants.” New enclosure laws that prevented the use of land for “common grazing” (shared pasture) combined with higher rents and a sharp rise in prices during the sixteen century all added to the plight of many rural villagers.
Much critical controversy surrounding the Shakespeare Sonnets including “Sonnet 55” can be condensed into the following question: whom exactly is the poet addressing? The first 126 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are addressed to a “Young Man” or “Friend,” while sonnets 127 to 152 are addressed to a mysterious “Dark Lady” who may have been the poet’s mistress. Although the collection of sonnets published in 1609 was dedicated to “Mr. W. H.,” critics such as A. L. Rowse have argued that this is in fact the publisher’s dedication rather than Shakespeare’s. The specific identity of Mr. W. H. remains the subject of debate along with the nature of his possible relationship with Shakespeare.
Arthur F. Marotti, in his essay “Love Is Not Love: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order,” detects the language of patronage in the sonnets. In other words, Shakespeare may have written “Sonnet 55” in order to flatter or serve the needs of a financial supporter. Some scholars argue that this theory does not fully account for language in some of the “Young Man” sonnets that suggest not only admiration but sexual infatuation. Critics such as Joseph Pequigney in his Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Martin Seymour-Smith in his Shakespeare’s Sonnets argue that this sequence of sonnets (including “Sonnet 55”) suggests a homosexual love relationship. Other scholars, however, point out that our contemporary understanding of homosexuality does not necessarily apply to Renaissance times and offer a revised “homosocial” understanding of English society during the Renaissance. In a “homosocial” society, displays of affection or declarations of devotion between men or women are merely a common and widely acceptable indication of deep friendship, although the same behavior in today’s society might be interpreted as evidence of a sexual relationship.
Helen Vendler in her The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets argues that attempts to determine the social and psychological context of Shakespeare’s sonnets may be ultimately missing the point of the poems. She notes that each sonnet is “intended to be voiceable by anyone reading it,” and, therefore, the sex, class, and race and nature of the relationship between the poet and object of the poem are irrelevant. Vendler praises the structural coherence, logical development, unity, and, above all, the poetic language of Shakespeare’s sonnets, arguing that their true value as poems is in their beauty rather than in their function as speculative social or psychological commentary.
Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in Cinema Studies. In the following essay, Hochman examines the universal conflicts referred to in “Sonnet 55” and discusses how poems are similar in some aspects to statues and buildings.
Conflict is the foundation upon which Shakespeare builds “Sonnet 55.” The conflicts are of three kinds: the war waged between time and art, the attack of political culture upon artistic culture, and the contest between the built world (primarily buildings and statuary) and poetry.
Time continually and everywhere is said to attack works of art, but especially those exposed to the elements. Culture defends its art by periodically sweeping clean, refurbishing, or reconstructing its monuments. In “Sonnet 55” time is called “sluttish”—meaning dirty—for “besmearing” buildings and statuary, “attacking” them with dirt, discoloration, and disfigurement. While Shakespeare’s use of time might seem to belong to the realm of nature, time belongs, at least in this day, more properly or primarily to the realm of culture. It is the dirt produced by cities (airborne pollutants from cars, homes, and factories) which is now known to act most viciously on edifices, a problem now being confronted at the Acropolis in Greece and the pyramids in Egypt. The most dramatic subcategory of time is death, mentioned in line 9. When art of the commemorative kind—and virtually all art is commemorative, for if nothing else, the artisan or artist is commemorated—is attacked by time, the attack presents the threat of eventual death. Buildings and statuary are thus kept clean in order to keep away “the ending doom.” In other words, cleaning prevents the destruction of things built, keeps away the “death” of those who built them or had them built, and, most obviously, postpones the “death” of those persons directly commemorated in buildings named for people and monumentalized in statuary of selected personages.
The second conflict of “Sonnet 55” is that attack of political or marshal culture upon artistic culture. I call this an attack, because art does not really fight back so much as supply an endless array of objects that wars seek to plunder, disfigure, or utterly “overturn” and “root out,” as Shakespeare says. Why does one enemy or another seek out buildings and statuary to destroy? Not only to make it fearful and difficult for the other side to live, but to destroy the spirit of a people, its memories, its pride, its identity; the built world is personal identity exteriorized and rematerialized in stone and marble. The only greater insult than destruction of artistic and architectural culture is its replacement by those who destroyed it in the first place. This is the “enmity” Shakespeare mentions in line nine, an enmity of an enemy not just in war but in day-today living. Notice here that line 9 mentions both the war between art and time (“death”) and the marshal (as in Mars, Roman god of war) attack of culture upon built and artistic culture (“enmity”). It might be helpful to note that while Shakespeare
What Do I Read Next?
- Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was composed around the same period during which the sonnets are believed to have been written, explores the theme of reality and illusion seen through “lovers’ eyes.” The play offers a skeptical view of reality seen through the eyes of lovers.
- Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida explores themes of time, war, and decay.
- Published in 1633, John Donne’s Songs & Sonets provides an example of the increasing flexibility of sonnet form. These acclaimed poems pose an interesting contrast with the sonnets of Shakespeare.
- The poems of the Italian poet Petrarch, an innovator of the sonnet form, are available in English translations such as Joseph A. Barber’s Rime Disperse (1991).
only speaks of the attack of one culture upon another during war, the attack upon built culture also occurs internally, within a culture, as when buildings are inscribed with graffiti or torn apart by guerilla bombings, or art is officially censored or removed. This is the attack of one subculture upon another subculture or the larger culture. In the end, it is debatable whether the attacks of time (as in natural time) or the many and varied attacks of culture (pollution, war, attacks, eradication, censorship, etc.) pose the greatest threat to built culture.
Finally in “Sonnet 55,” there is the contest between the built world (primarily buildings and statuary) and poetry. This is the most important conflict of the poem and, as such, is prominently introduced in the first two lines. Shakespeare’s argument is that poetry is more “powerful” than the worlds created by art and architecture. Let us take his arguments one by one. First of all, it is commonly thought that the edifice and statue are more lasting monuments than a mere poem. Architecture and art may seem more lasting, but Shakespeare rightly remarks that art and architecture are subject to destruction by the armaments and fire of “broils.” Poetry, on the other hand, while easily destroyed through burning and the tearing apart of books, is not as often sought out for destruction (nor the buildings that often house it). Unfortunately for the overall meaning of “Sonnet 55,” seeking out buildings instead of books of verse indicates that poetry is usually far less important to a culture than are buildings and statuary. Despite this criticism, however, Shakespeare’s point still stands.
Secondly, poetry is said to last through time better than buildings and statuary because poetry is not so exposed to the elements. Poetry does not get rained upon or blown upon, or get parched by the sun, nor is it used by various plants and animals as support or sanctuary. Poetry remains indoors and protected, subjected to the slower fluctuations of moisture, mildew, and dryness, and the repeated handling of its readers. Thus, while a building may become dirty and disfigured, the poem on the page remains in the same form it was always in. In addition, though Shakespeare does not say so, the poem, especially a short form like the sonnet, remains intact because it can be copied or mechanically reproduced numerous times very quickly. Thus the poem can exist in many locales whereas the building and statue exist in only one place.
In this competition between poetry and the world of built things, Shakespeare alludes to something without stating it: that poetry is itself like a building and a statue. Poetry is like a building in that it is constructed of parts built up into a structure. Letters are like the bricks or stones of a word, as words are like the building blocks of a line, as the poem’s lines are the rows of bricks in the poem’s “walls.” And when a poem utilizes stanzas (which are implied in a sonnet), these are comparable to the walls or sides of a structure, a building whose title can be said to be a kind of roof. The poet is the mason who builds the poetic structure, holding together its lines with the mortar of sound and metrical similarities, and with punctuation. Or without this varied mortar between the words and lines of poetry, the poet carefully places lines one atop the other so as to be sound without the need for sonic and metrical similarities, so as to be meaningful without punctuation. One could even go so far as to say that the poem is a city: if you shift the whole of “Sonnet 55” forty-five degrees counterclockwise, the poem resembles the skyline of city packed with skyscrapers.
Poetry is also like statuary in that one does not often think of a poem as a series of separate bricks in a poetic edifice, but more as a series of moves congealing into a sculptured figure, that at its best is smooth and artless, a figure (poem) that seems to appear like a denizen of nature, one not showing in its structure how it was made. Furthermore, letters are themselves sculpted figures that can become sculptures in space (for example, Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture from the 1960s). Finally, poetry is like building and statuary in that it is commemorative of a culture, a designer, maker, ruler, event, or a particular person or persons. And if Shakespeare is right, the edifice of poetry, especially of “Sonnet 55,” commemorates even better than architecture and statuary for it can preserve and inspire love, love for the poem, the poet, and the commemorated. In the end, the only adversary that poetry—and all cultural artifacts for that matter—loses hands down to is time without end. Poetry is, as Shakespeare writes, only a temporary immortalization/commemoration in comparison to the eternality following Judgment Day, the time of real immortality (at least to Christians). “Powerful” poetry, even Shakespeare admits, is always and only a temporary heaven.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Sean Robisch teaches composition and literature at Purdue University and holds a Ph.D. in American literature. In the following essay, Robisch provides literary and historical context to consider when reading “Sonnet 55,” as well as a brief overview of the poem.
Whenever you are tempted to ask the question, “Why do we still study Shakespeare?” you will probably receive the best answer by seeing one of his plays or reading the sonnets. Some of his lines are so powerful that people occasionally mistake them for having appeared in the Bible, and we quote them regularly without even realizing it. Shakespeare’s work is full of all the great things about literature, including the mysteries of how that work came to be written. Critics have speculated as to who wrote the plays, when the sonnets were composed, and how much of Shakespeare’s life was written into his stories and poems. But finally, when the criticism is sifted through and the couplets and plot turns given the proper attention, the powerful rhyme is what we learn, and it strengthens our minds to have done so.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were most likely written between 1592 and 1598, though the first publication of the collected 154 by Thomas Thorpe didn’t happen until 1609. Thorpe established their order, based on clues in the writing, and it has been generally accepted that, while the order cannot be exactly determined, 126 of them were written to a young man of high rank, handsome looks, and questionable morals, who may be a “rival poet” of the narrator. “Sonnet 55,” also known as “Not marble nor the gilded monuments” (they are sometimes called by first line), is one of these. It is also one of eight sonnets written about the poem as a monument to immortality, as a document that will outlast the life of its subject. This will be important when we look more closely at the poem itself. When Thorpe published the work, he included a cryptic dedication, which has been the subject of speculation by critics for centuries. The “W.H.” to whom the volume is dedicated could be one of several men, but most likely either William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley (with the letters transposed as part of the puzzle), Earl of Southampton. The relevance of this dedication, and to the attention it has received, is at least threefold: 1) It is of interest to scholars trying to solve the riddles of literature so that we may better understand it; 2) It introduces us to the idea of dedicating work, which is very important to sonnets in general and to Shakespeare’s in particular; and 3) It reminds us to focus on the text in the midst of these interesting mysteries, and not to sacrifice the poem to the speculation about biographical information.
What we are able to see in the bulk of the sonnets is that Shakespeare wrote a great deal about dubious morality and unconventional subjects, even though he was using a very conventional form. The sonnet, an Italian formal poem initiated primarily by Dante and Petrarch, was well-worn in England by the time Shakespeare used it. Edmund Spenser, the Earl of Surrey, and Sir Philip Sidney, especially through his poem called Astrophel and Stella, had made the sonnet wildly popular throughout England, and Shakespeare knew this. But he took a certain form of sonnet enjoyed by these other poets, which uses three quatrains and a couplet, and made it do some new work.
First, the common subject of a sonnet during Shakespeare’s time was a fair-skinned, blondehaired, virtuous woman who represented the highest achievement of social acceptability. In addition to writing most of his sonnets about a man, Shakespeare chose for his other poems a “dark lady,” a woman of dark hair and probably olive skin whose morals were also a bit “shady.” Today, we see artists regularly attempt this accomplishment of challenging a conventional form often with little success. But Shakespeare went farther than simply breaking the rules. He also weaved a moral complexity into his work that addresses misogyny, superficial beauty versus depth of character, frustration with romantic love, celebration (in both reward and suffering), rivalry, and the moral role of the poem itself to express all these things. We may see this easily in “Sonnet 55,” in such phrases as “sluttish time” or in the poem’s attention to itself as a “powerful rhyme” that will outlive the monuments built to royalty. Many sonnets by Shakespeare’s contemporaries preferred to demonstrate only the poet’s wit, remaining lighthearted about their subjects without committing to the complexities of ethics or moral arguments. We still see this in the poetry and fiction that often reaches the best-seller list because it requires little work of the reader to sort out the most interesting material of our lives— that which cannot be easily said or judged.
The idea that the writer of “Sonnet 55” and the other 125 poems to a young man was attracted to that man has been debated extensively. Some critics argue that the poet’s love for the man is purely platonic. In the first seventeen sonnets, the writer encourages the man to marry and have children. Also, in Shakepeare’s era (as is often expressed in his plays), to express “love” often merely meant respect and admiration, deep friendship. However, all of these facts may easily be read as the necessary defenses of someone whose attractions might, if expressed directly, ruin him in his society. Other critics, such as Joseph Pequingney, argue forcefully that the group of 126 poems are certainly traditional love poems written from the nontraditional homoerotic perspective. Another way to read the poems is offered by a third set of critics and is also accepted as another element of the work by those speculating about the nature of the love expressed: many of them are written to a “rival poet.” The man of “Sonnet 55,” whom the writer wants to memorialize, has been, in other poems, the object of frustration for the writer. Their friendship is rocky, as the rival poet may be competing with the writer for the money of an art patron. So “Sonnet 55” would be a bright moment, a way of one poet burying the hatchet with his friend and rival. The final word should probably be, once again, that not enough information is available to guess at the precise relationship between writer and young man.
We must also be careful not to mix up Shakespeare himself with the narrator of the sonnets. We may consider Shakespeare’s choices as the writer, but those choices may not be autobiographical. Even though Wordsworth believed that “with this key [the sonnet] Shakespeare unlocked his heart,” Browning disagreed, and renowned critics such as Sir Sydney Lee have been quick to point out that they could just as easily been products of poetic convention that had nothing to do with Shakespeare. Certainly the man who could write such great fabrications as Romeo and Juliet could fabricate as well a narrator’s persona and then let that persona “speak” these sonnets. Remember that Shakespeare was an actor, and he loved to write into his work the metaphor of the world as a stage. To assume that a work of literature is “about” the writer is called the intentional fallacy, and it takes away from that writer his or her ability to invent. So, in “Sonnet 55” we have a narrator writing a memorial to a friend—and this is all we know. Ironically, this sonnet, considered one of Shakespeare’s best, has no mention of the sex of the subject. The hypothesis that it is a man, while having some evidence behind it, is based largely on context and conjecture, not on anything direct in this particular poem. You could consider the sonnet as though it were written to you and carried to you from the past over all this time on something as flimsy as a page.
What is apparent in the poem is Shakespeare’s specific attention to the memorial and to the poem itself. I say Shakespeare now because we may see that Shakespeare wrote the poem, even while possibly inventing a narrator to deliver it. That is, Shakespeare himself chose to make his narrator talk about the poem outlasting marble and gilded monuments, about the subject to whom the poem is addressed—like a letter—passing from the Day of Judgment to the immortality of life in “lovers’ eyes.” It’s a great way of saying that the best thing a writer may do to see some tangible possibility of immortality is to write down words that may outlast human life. And we have some proof that this works, though we certainly cannot say for how long (immortality is, after all, a permanent state). Sonnet “55” was written approximately 400 years ago, and here we are reading it, studying it, wondering about the person who wrote the poem and to whom he wrote it. So it is possible that not “Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn the living record” written in the poetry’s most powerful habitat—the human memory. This is an excellent reason, among others, to memorize the sonnet. When we commit poetry to memory and are able to speak it, as the sonnet was written partly to help us do, we understand it better and may find it surprisingly useful one day.
You might wonder why, if Shakespeare figured his poems to be monuments to immortality, it took Thomas Thorpe several years to publish them. Actually, the subject was quite common. Many poets wrote their work at least pretending to have the sense that the words on the page were sufficient to last—that the act of writing, not publishing, was the creation of the monument. We might also remember that Shakespeare wrote all the sonnets while he was writing a number of plays that incorporated the sonnet form: Venus and Adonis, Love’s Labours Lost, Richard I, and Romeo and Juliet (which had quite a bit to say about poetry and mortality). He knew the convention of the “immortal poem” and used it to his advantage.
Given all of this context and possibility in reading the poem, we might now look at it closely. The first quatrain concerns the poem as a more powerful form of monument than marble, gilded monuments to princes, or chiseled stone. The phrase “besmeared with sluttish time” personifies the passage of time as a lazy housemaid (the connotations of “sluttish” are a bit different today) who either fails to maintain the monument or who in fact wipes it away. The first sentence (two lines) is written in the third person about “this powerful rhyme,” so the opening subject is the poem itself, not its recipient. This is important. What appears at the beginning and end of a piece is often most easily remembered; the beginning influences our attitude toward the rest of that piece, and the end leaves us with the final image or idea we will take with us after closing the book. Not until the second sentence (lines 3 and 4) does the narrator use the second person and address his object directly. Even then, where this person “shines” is in the poem in “these contents.”
The second quatrain gives the poem epic scope, connects it to the immortal. It begins by switching the scale of the poem to something larger than one person: to war. War as “wasteful” means literally that it lays waste to things, that it is destructive (not simply careless, as “wasteful” has come to mean today). It overturns statues and smashes walls (a broil is a battle). Shakespeare then takes war to its epic persona, to the god Mars and the sword and fire of epic conflict. But the quatrain again turns the attention back to the poem and its object simultaneously. The recipient of the poem will outlive even the efforts of Mars through, once again, the “living record” of the sonnet.
The third quatrain takes the poem logically from monuments and wars to the subject of death, first of the person (the young man, let’s say) who will “pace forth” even against death then to the end of the world. The “eyes of posterity” set us up for the poem’s couplet, the rhymed, two-line ending by which we so often recognize Shakespeare. The Judgment follows death, and the young man—or lover, or rival poet, or reader—“arises” and is taken up in the rapture of humanity, to live “in this” (that is, the poem) and “in lovers’ eyes.” So the ending, that other powerful position in the sonnet, leaves us with lovers’ eyes as the image that outlasts marble and gilded monuments. This is, in many respects, the perfect sonnet, in that its form is not just contrived to rhyme, but contributes to the subject matter. This is why we still read Shakespeare. His writing still works.
Source: Sean Robisch, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Duncan-Jones discusses Shakespeare’s famous volume of sonnets and speculates about the identity of the young man that sonnets 1-126 reportedly address.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets—or, as they were called on the original title-page, SHAKESPEARES SONNETS—were first printed in 1609. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they were not often discussed, or even mentioned. Eminent critics such as Doctor Johnson passed them by in silence. However, the admirable Edmond Malone included them in the Supplement to his edition of Shakespeare in 1780....
When the Sonnets began to receive more searching attention from critics and scholars during the nineteenth century, widespread embarrassment was felt that the majority of them—Sonnets 1–126—appeared to be addressed to a young male friend, not a female mistress. In Sonnets 1–17 this is quite clear. The poet amasses a succession of reasons why the young man—who seems very young, and perhaps a shade narcissistic—should, by marrying, fertilise one of the ‘maiden gardens’ eagerly awaiting him (16.6), and reproduce his beauty for future generations. This seems harmless enough, and can be linked with similar persuasions to marriage in classical literature and in a model closer to home, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (published 1590). But Sonnet 20 has a distinctly ‘naughty’ flavour, with its stress on the young man’s epicene beauty....
The poet declares himself the ‘slave’ or ‘vassal’ of the young man (57, 58), who appears to be of a superior social class; and though many sonnets, such as 18, 19, 38, 54, 55, 60 and 65, suggest that the speaker’s chief aim is to conquer Time by immortalising his friend’s beauty and worth in verse, others, such as some of those on absence, hint that physical proximity is what he most craves....
To many nineteenth-century biographers and critics, bent on making England’s national poet approximate to the figure of a respectable Victorian man of letters, the implications of all this were intolerable....
Scholars dealt with this embarrassment in various ways. Perhaps, pace Wordsworth, the situation suggested in these sonnets was wholly fictional; or perhaps the sonnets themselves were not truly Shakespearian. Some scholars placed all their emphasis on the ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets, 127–52; some suggested that the addressee was, in fact, female almost throughout the sequence, but that the sonnets had been misleadingly or maliciously tampered with or rearranged. Editorial rearrangement to make the love-object female throughout began as early as 1640, with John Benson’s edition. Other scholars, more plausibly, tried to draw the Sonnets within the conventions of Renaissance poetry addressed to patrons. What nearly all critics and editors, up to and including J. Dover Wilson in the New Cambridge edition of 1966, were agreed on was that Shakespeare could not possibly have intended his sonnets to see the light of day. Some developed elaborate conspiracy theories, with supposed enemies of Shakespeare banding together to steal his private poems and get them into print, and many, including the distinguished bibliographer Sir Sidney Lee, made out that the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, was the villain of the piece. By the early twentieth century belief that the 1609 quarto was an unauthorised publication had become standard, and a conjecture that it had been suppressed shortly after publication solidified into a received certainty, despite the absence of evidence. Shakespeare, despite his declaration in Sonnet 110 that he has ‘made himself a motley to the view’, must, it was supposed, have been ashamed of these poems, and taken steps to prevent them from reaching a wide audience.
There is, however, nothing manifestly irregular about the publication of SHAKESPEARES SONNETS, and some external evidence suggests that Shakespeare—whose name is proudly proclaimed
“The ‘sense of felt life’ in many of [Shakespeare’s Sonnets] is both overpowering, and overpoweringly idiosyncratic. They are almost too strong for their framework.”
at the top of every page, as well as on the title-page—may, in fact, have authorised publication. The book was registered with the Stationers in the correct fashion on 20 May 1609. Although, as most critics broadly agree, some or all of the sonnets had probably been written well before this date, Shakespeare had a likely financial motive for taking them to a publisher in the spring of 1609, for a prolonged plague outbreak had led to an order closing the theatres. Shakespeare, who had been a shareholder of the Globe since 1599, stood to lose a great deal of money while the order was in force....
SHAKESPEARES SONNETS, with its final, sub-classical, playful sonnets on Diana’s cooling fountain (153, 154), followed by A Lover’s Complaint, approximates to the pattern established by [Samuel] Daniel [in his Delia] and copied by others. Many of the ‘complaint’ poems appended to sonnet sequences concerned unhappy women of history or legend who were seduced or betrayed by men of high rank. Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint conforms to this general theme, but is unusual in its lack of mythological or historical reference. Like the chief characters in the Sonnets, the three main characters in the Complaint, old man, maiden, and charming seducer, have no names. But though the young(ish) woman in the Complaint does not seem like the ‘Dark Lady’ of Sonnets 127-52, the young man by whom she has been betrayed, charismatic, high-ranking, and unreliable, does sound distinctly like the young ‘friend’ celebrated in Sonnets 1-126. Possibly, as in other Elizabethan sonnet sequence volumes, some deliberate counterpointing of male and female viewpoints is intended in the juxtaposition of Sonnets and Complaint. Both poet and maiden are painfully attached to a comparable—or identical?—young man.
That young man has provoked much debate. Is he the same as the ‘Mr W.H.’ described by Thorpe as the ‘only begetter’ of the Sonnets? And if so, can he, perhaps, be William Herbert, who became Third Earl of Pembroke in the spring of 1601? Herbert had the right initials, received dedications in books published subsequently by Thomas Thorpe, and was, along with his younger brother, dedicatee of the First Folio in 1623, where he is praised as one who favoured Shakespeare during his life. The allusion to ‘thy mother’s glass’ in Sonnet 3 would in this case be a compliment to Sir Philip Sidney’s sister, the celebrated patroness and poet Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke; and pervasive echoes of Sidney’s poetry and Arcadia both in Sonnets and Complaint might be included by design, as graceful references to the young man’s famous uncle. However, other claimants cannot be eliminated. Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, was undoubtedly the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s narrative poems, and though his initials are in the wrong order, it is possible that T.T.’s dedication, enigmatic and riddling as it is, alludes to him. Other possibilities are Southampton’s stepfather, Sir William Harvey; a young law student, William Hatcliffe; kinsmen of Shakespeare, William Hart or William Hathaway; a young actor imagined by Oscar Wilde, Willy Hughes; or a score of others, including ‘William Himself. The one name definitely referred to in the sequence is ‘William’, and whatever the young man’s surname, it does seem likely that poet and friend shared a Christian name. To me, Pembroke seems by far the most plausible candidate, but conjecture must stop well short of certainty....
... To what extent the Sonnets grew out of real-life experiences—which could include the experience of reading other poets—we shall never know.
The ultimate interest and value of Shakespeare’s Sonnets transcend their many problems— such questions as when they were written, to whom they allude, whether they are in the right order. Though some metaphors, like the reference to the world as a ‘huge stage’ in Sonnet 15, or to an ‘unperfect actor’ in Sonnet 23, remind us that these are the poems of an actor-dramatist, the Sonnets are for the most part profoundly unlike Shakespeare’s plays. The ‘sense of felt life’ in many of them is both overpowering, and overpoweringly idiosyncratic. They are almost too strong for their framework. The richly inclusive vision of humanity that enabled Shakespeare to breathe life into such diverse dramatic characters—Richard III, Juliet, Falstaff, Lady Macbeth, Prospero, to name but a few—is surely at work here, but to totally different effect....
These sonnets are not mini-dramas, or fragments of dramatic speech, despite the fact that many closing couplets resemble ‘exit lines’. They are intense poetic meditations, coloured throughout by all acute sense of the nearness of death and of the imperfection of all mortal things—love, beauty, friendship, even poetry itself. Shakespeare (or his persona) celebrates his friend’s beauty, though he knows it will fade (18, 19); he affirms his integrity, though he knows he is unreliable (33–5); he praises the loyalty and beauty of a woman who is neither chaste nor fair (137, 138). More bleakly, the poet acknowledges his own divided, perhaps degraded, way of life (109–11); and though at some moments he claims immortality for the sonnets themselves, at others he apologises for them as monotonous and old-fashioned, of only ‘sentimental value’ (32, 76). At times, it seems, he can hardly write about his friend at all (100–103), and even has to confess to having given away a notebook given him by his friend (122). Despite all the poet’s affirmation of the power of love and art, imperfection is everywhere.
What gives the Sonnets their lasting power and greatness has little to do with who Shakespeare’s real-life friends or lovers may have been, though the inclusion of particularity within the universal contributes to their unique force. These are poems of search, not of statement, in which the speaker struggles repeatedly, as we all must, to find something lasting in a universe of decay. The immortalising thread that runs through the whole sequence, the Complaint included, is the theme of human love: an imaginative alchemy which assimilates and transfigures all the dross of sin and weakness. Shakespeare celebrated such transfiguring love quite often in his plays, as when Antonio gives and hazards all he has for his friend Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice; or when Desdemona forgives her murderer-husband in the words: ‘Nobody, I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord’: or when Cordelia says to Lear, ‘No cause, no cause.’ But only the Sonnets gave Shakespeare scope to explore this theme in all its depth and complexity. Like the nameless maid in the Complaint, the poet loves his friend not in spite of his imperfection, but in the very midst of his imperfection. Where human frailty is most apparent, love most abounds.
Source: Duncan-Jones, Katherine, introduction to Shakespeares Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint, London: Folio Society, 1989.
Bergeron, David M., and Geraldo U. DeSousa, Shakespeare: A Study and Research Guide, third edition, revised, Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1995.
Boyce, Charles, Shakespeare A to Z, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990.
Bradby, G. F., Short Studies in Shakespeare, Brooklyn, NY: Haskell House Publishers, 1977.
Craig, Hardin, Shakespeare: A Historical and Critical Study with Annotated Texts of 21 Plays, Chicago: Scott, Foresman, &Co., 1931.
Duncan-Jones, Katherine, ed., The Arden Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1997.
Evans, G. Blakemore, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.
Hubler, Edward, The Sense of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, New York: Hill and Wang, 1952.
Jones, Peter, ed., Shakespeare: The Sonnets, A Casebook, London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1977.
Lever, J. W., ed. Sonnets of the English Renaissance, London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1974.
Marotti, Arthur F., “Love Is Not Love: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order,” ELH, Summer, 1982, pp. 396-428.
Martin, Philip, Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love and Art, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Pequigney, Joseph, Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Seymour-Smith, Martin, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Oxford: Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd., 1963.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935.
Willen, Gerald, and Victor B. Reed, A Casebook on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964.
Bradbrook, M. C., Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry: A Study of his Earlier Work in Relation to the Poetry of the Time, London: Chatto and Windus, 1965.
Includes discussion of Shakespeare’s works in the context of the changing medieval worldview during the Renaissance. Also examines Elizabethan language, the Elizabethan stage, and character in Shakespeare’s plays.
Guy, John, Tudor England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Covers English history from 1460 through the death of Elizabeth I. Includes chapters on the economics and political culture of Elizabethan government.
Levi, Peter, The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, London: Macmillan, 1988.
Discusses Shakespeare’s entire career and argues that some of the Sonnets were written for the Earl of Southampton.
Strong, Roy, The Cut of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry, London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.
Examines images of Queen Elizabeth and her court and provides supplementary historical discussion.
Thomson, Peter, Shakespeare’s Professional Career, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Tells the story of Shakespeare’s career, and describes “the accommodation of his remarkable talents to the circumstances of his time: the social, political and professional life of Jacobean England.”