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William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Elizabethan age was full of writers of songs and lyrics. Many other forms of verse were attempted such as the epic romance, the pastoral, the verse, tale, the elegy, the sonnet and the satire. The important song writers of the age of Elizabeth are—Christopher Marlowe, Drayton, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Edward Spenser.
William Shakespeare is most widely quoted author in history, and his plays have probably been performed more times than those of any other dramatist. He has written 154 sonnets in English. The sonnets of Shakespeare were published in 1609. Shakespearean sonnet has three stanzas of four lines and in the end a couplet. Its rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg.

In Shakespeare’s sonnets, falling in love can have painful emotional and physical consequences. The first 126 Sonnets are apparently addressed to a handsome young nobleman, presumably the author’s patron (supporter). The next 28 sonnets are written to a “dark lady”, whom the poet seemingly cannot resist. Sonnets 127–152, addressed to the so-called dark lady, express a more overtly erotic and physical love than the sonnets addressed to the young man. But many sonnets warn readers about the dangers of lust and love. According to some poems, lust causes us to mistake sexual desire for true love, and love itself causes us to lose our powers of perception. In his sonnets, however, Shakespeare portrays making love not as a romantic expression of sentiment but as a base physical need with the potential for horrible consequences.

Shakespeare, like many sonneteers, portrays time as an enemy of love. Time destroys love because time causes beauty to fade, people to age, and life to end. One common convention of sonnets in general is to flatter (praise or compliment someone) either a beloved or a patron by promising immortality through verse. As long as readers read the poem, the object of the poem’s love will remain alive. Through art, nature and beauty overcome time. Several sonnets use the seasons to symbolize the passage of time and to show that everything in nature—from plants to people—is mortal. But nature creates beauty, which poets capture and render immortal in their verse. 


William Shakespeare, often called the English national poet, is widely considered the greatest dramatist of all time. He was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. This Shakespearean sonnet makes a very bold claim about the power of the speaker's poetry, but it would seem that the fact that we are still reading the poetry today proves that he was right!

This poem which is the 55th sonnet of William Shakespeare tells about the limitations of worldly glory and grandeur. All the great monuments, memorials and statues erected by princes, rulers and the rich to perpetuate their memory are subject to decay, destruction and deterioration. The ravages of time and the agents of destruction destroy and damage all such monuments and memorials. Only the powerful rhyme of the poet and great poetry will survive the ravages of time. Through the written words of this poem, poet will immortalize the memory of his friend till the day of the Last Judgment.

The poem begins with the claim or thesis that neither "marble, not gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme." He extends this idea by explaining that the goodness of the unnamed person he is writing about in this poem about will last forever and not be "besmeared with sluttish (dirty) time." The speaker proclaims that his poem is more powerful than "marble" or "gilded monuments." Prices have nothing on poets when it comes to enshrining truth. The poet/speaker has faith that his sonnets will live longer than any stone Statue. Marble and stone monuments become mere offensive gestures when compared to the written monuments that contain a true poet's tributes to truth and beauty. The poet knows that truth is soul inspired, and therefore it is eternal.

The speaker insists that nothing can erase the living records of the memory of his beloved. The wasteful war might destroy the great monuments of the worlds and destroy the labor of the masons (a craftsman who works with stone or brick) but the poem's memory is permanent. The poem is ethereal and once written remains permanent records written on memory.

The poem containing truth and beauty is immortal; it is against death. No enemy can ever succeed against that soul-truth. This poet/speaker has the extreme confidence that his poems will be enjoying widespread fame and all future generation of readers will be reading and studying them.

In the couplet, the speaker claims that, the poetic truth and beauty will exist forever and remain embedded in the vision of future readers.


Stanza 1: The poet tells that whether it is marble or gold plated monuments of great rulers and kings, all will get destroyed but the magnificence of his poetry is alive forever. Time is compared to a slut, who loses her glow and beauty with time. Shakespeare compares time unfavorably to a female subject.

Stanza 2: When destructive wars take place, they will destroy statues and also all the work of the masons will be destroyed. Even the Sword of Mars, God of War, or the destructive fires of war will be able to destroy our memory. The poet is basically saying that, even wars will not destroy the written memories of our life, for they will survive even after deadly wars.

Stanza 3: This stanza doesn’t talk about survival, but of human appreciation. The poet continues to praise his subject. Slight deviation of the meter in the words “Even in” creates emphasis for this permanency. The poet says that, death and enmity destroys everything, but poetry written of the subject will be immortalized for all generations to come.

Stanza 4: The ending couplet is a summary of the survival theme. The couplet not only summarizes the rest of the sonnet, but also seems to contradict itself. “Judgement” goes with the talk of judgement day in the last stanza, but implies that the subject is alive and will be judged on that day. “Dwelling in lover’s eyes” suggests that subject is love itself. Thus Shakespeare seems to consider the subject so lovely that he is a personification of love, which could be conquered and to which no poetry can do justice. So, the thesis of the sonnet is that the subject will be honored forever and eternal.

Terms and Meanings:
  • Gilded - gold-plated
  • Unswept stone - a stone monument left uncared for.
  • Besmear'd – rusted
  • Sluttish - of unclean habits and behavior.
  • Broils – disturbances
  • Mars – the god of war
  • Quick - fast moving
  • Living record - this written memory of your life which continues after you are dead.
  • Gainst – against
  • Oblivious enmity - enmity which is forgetful of everything and so seeks to destroy everything.
  • Pace forth - stride forwards
  • Posterity - future generations
  • Doom - the day on which the Last Judgment will occur.
  • Judgement - the day of the last judgement.
Critical Analysis of the Poem

This sonnet is a well-crafted poem. In this first line Shakespeare uses a word, 'gilded', that can mean more than one thing. He purposely uses gild to mean different things. To overlay with gold is the most straightforward definition of gild. Shakespeare is telling the person for whom he is writing that with this poem his memories of that person will outlive the monuments of today. He is proclaiming that the pyramids overlaid with gold, the palatial tombs left to prince and royalty is nothing to the memorial of words he has left his love. The work of the mason and of the statute maker will perish under war bought. But his words will not come undone by any man or godly power to the end of time as he states in line 7,"Nor Mars hid sword nor war's quick fire shall burn the living record of your memory". His rhyme will survive world without end.

It also speaks how physical commemorations were produced before and during Shakespeare's time. Kings and nobility spent large sums of money and manpower to build their courtyards, tributes, etc. Shakespeare is saying no one die for him to make his written monument. The poem was written with sweat from his brow, not the bloody sweat of a thousand men or their corruption. Shakespeare did not have to lay siege to an enemy's rightful belongings or steal another country's gold, silver, or diamond to build his poem.

Shakespeare's use of third definition of gild, to give an attractive but often deceptive appearance criticizes the extravagance of some structure. It seen to suggest the person who fund them where ego-centric, they made monuments to themselves to show their status, wealth and power, but they lacked self-confidence, control, or true devotion towards others. The churches of the middle age where beautiful but probably a tribute to greatness of priests and not to eminence of god. Shakespeare is writing this poem for the sole purpose of worship to this man or woman. Shakespeare is not selfish in his action, his boldness is to affirm the power of this person's life and memory, and he will keep it alive against mortal deaths and plagues. The beauty is not in the poem alone but also in the one who is great enough to render Shakespeare to such devotion.

When worthless war shall overturn status there will be nothing left of the structure. Shakespeare is subtly stating the inspiration for his sonnet is praiseworthy enough to stand the test of time. The person he is speaking of is higher than nature and man-made resources. Shakespeare is not adorning his poem with the unnecessary; every word makes his shine brighter in these contents the words complement her, and they do not over-power her and her soul.

Shakespeare chose to use gild instead of gold because gild has more connotations. Gold can be a color or a precious stone, but gild has many dimensions. Shakespeare is speaking to monuments made by hand as gold laden, deceptive, unnecessarily adorned, too costly, or as a cause of death or war. Shakespeare uses gild to speak to something that is unnecessarily ornamented, because a ton of gold , or thousand men's lives, do not have to be spent to show admiration for a person, place, or things, nor does it make him, her, or it timeless. With fourteen lines Shakespeare's pen is mightier than the knight's sword, the person who he is celebrating is greater than the vain aspirations of kings.

Immorality through Art

Shakespeare, like many sonneteers, portrays time as an enemy of love. Time destroys love because time causes beauty to fade, people to age, and life to end. One common convention of sonnets in general is to flatter either a beloved or a patron by promising immortality through verse. As long as readers read the poem, the object of the poem’s love will remain alive. The poem aims to immortalize the subject (the lady) in verse.

The power of immortality is one of the main themes in William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 55'. Shakespeare uniquely thinks poetry as a tool to immortalize his friend. He is not concerned with his own glory. The Roman poets say: “Because of my poems I will never die”. But Shakespeare says: “Because of my poems you will never die”. What distinguishes Shakespeare is that he values the identity of his friend and wants to immortalize him through his verses. In Sonnet 55, we find an impassioned burst of confidence as the poet claims to have the power to keep his friend’s memory alive forever. Shakespeare intends to immortalize his friend through his poetry. At the very beginning he expressed his firm belief that nothing shall outlive his 'powerful verses'. He says:

"Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhymes. "

For him, poetry will last longer than the great monuments which were built to immortalize the great kings and princes.  Shakespeare says that the memory of his friend will be immortalized through his poetry because time will not affect it and it will outlive everything as time can affect only the material things like the marbles and monuments. It can't affect poetry because poetry is kept in books and the minds of the people. Shakespeare boldly claims that the memory of his friend that he recorded in his 'powerful rhymes' will never be burnt/erased by any natural or man-made phenomena.  He says:

"Not mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burnThe living record of your memory." 
He says that everything will be ruined- like the monuments will be besmeared by time, the statues and masonry will be destroyed by wars or civil disturbance- but his friend will remain alive through his poems. He claims that even the sword of the Mars (Roman god of war) and fire of war cannot erase the 'living record ' of his friend's memory. Also his friend's memory will not be affected by the oblivion that comes with enmity and death, will last and find room in the minds of coming generations.

"Gainst death and all-oblivious enmityShall you pace forth; your praise shall still find roomEven in the eyes of all posterity."

Shakespeare says that, till the judgment day comes, his friend's memory will live in this poem and he will live in the lovers' eyes when they read this sonnet as an expression of their own feelings for each other.

In religious tradition, judgement 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". 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. Shakespeare uses this expression to mean that his poetry will survive until this day and it will immortalize her.

Shakespeare elevates poetry as superior, and the only assurance of immortality in this world, but lowers this particular sonnet itself as being unworthy of his subject.  In this way—that is, as beautiful people of one generation produce more beautiful people in the subsequent generation and as all this beauty is written about by poets—nature, art, and beauty triumph over time. Thus, his theme is that everything will be destroyed and forgotten expect the subject (the lady), who will be praised forever, because they are immortalized in these lines.


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