Analysis of Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare and Sonnet 55
Sonnet 55 is all about the endurance of love, preserved within the words of the sonnet itself. It will outlive material things such as grand palaces, royal buildings and fine, sculptured stone; it will outlive war and time itself, even to judgement day.
This is because the poem will always be a 'living record', the memory of love will stay alive within the sonnet, come what may. The effects of time, the destructive forces of war - they count for nothing.
This idea, of love, memory and spirit being kept alive in the written word, is ancient and goes back at least to Ovid in his Metamorphoses.
Shakespeare was undoubtedly inspired by this but his sonnets are still shrouded in mystery. We know he wrote them at a time when England was going through social and religious chaos in the late 16th century but scholars have no clear idea who he wrote them for.
Was he directly inspired by the fair youth and the dark lady? Or were they created for royalty and those aristocrats who sponsored plays? Are the sonnets simply the work of a dramatic poet in love with love itself and who had read Ovid, Horace and Homer and other classics?
They are certainly love sonnets but exactly which type of love is open to question - the Greeks had eight different words for each aspect of love, amongst them Eros (sexual passion) and Agape (love for everyone).
Sonnet 55 is a curious mix of both. It could well be inspired by a personal friend of the poet's. Equally, it could point to a deity - say Venus - or the spirit of that goddess within a real male or female.
Summary of Sonnet 55
The first quatrain states that, unlike fine stone and monuments that are subject to distasteful time, the sonnet itself will be love's timeless vehicle.
The second quatrain introduces the idea that war and destruction could not destroy the memories of love that live on.
The third quatrain continues the theme of everlasting love on into the future until the world ends.
The couplet underlines the previous sentiments. You will rise again on judgement day but for now you live in these words.
Analysis of Sonnet 55
Sonnet 55 is a Shakespearean or English sonnet, having 14 lines made up of three distinct quatrains and an end couplet.
Rhyme, Assonance and Alliteration
The rhyme scheme is ababcdcdefefgg and the end rhymes are all full, for example:
rhyme/time, room/doom, arise/eyes.
This full rhyme helps bind the sonnet together and keep a tight hold on content. Internally there is alliteration and assonance which bring texture and a variety of sounds for the reader:
Line 1 : Not...nor / marble...monuments.
Line 2 : princes/outlive....powerful.
Line 3: shall shine/bright.
Line 4 : stone...sluttish.
Line 5 : When wasteful war...shall statues.
Line 6 : broils root out..of/masonry.
Line 7 : Nor/sword nor war's....his/quick.
Line 8 : record/your/memory.
Line 9 : oblivious/enmity.
Line 10 : pace/praise...forth/your...shall/still.
Line 11 : Even...eyes.
Line 12 : wear...world.
Analysis of Sonnet 55 Line by Line
- Not mar / ble nor / the guil / ded mon / uments
Interestingly this sonnet starts off with a negative, the adverb not, introducing the reader to think about what is not important in life, which is fine stone and crafted stonework. Note the double alliteration and the allusion to grand palaces.
This is iambic pentameter, five feet of unstressed then stressed syllable, English poetry's most dominant metre (meter in USA). Shakespeare uses it a lot in his sonnets but also mixes it up with spondee and trochee - watch out for the changes.
Note also the enjambment, the first line carrying on straight into the second, no punctuation.
- Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
So the stone work is royal, or at least, belongs to a young royal male. Is this a clue as to who the sonnet is written for? Another young male, but not a prince? Or is this generic royal stone? Either way this material doesn't get to outlive the power of this poetry.
Again iambic pentameter is to the fore, with assonance and alliteration in evidence.
- But you shall shine more bright in these contents
The third line helps the reader put things in perspective because now there is a person or figure involved...you shall shine...in the contents of the poem, which will endure.
Note the alliteration again and the trochee which comes as a surprise after the steady iambics - but contents is pronounced with the stress on the con - and leaves a feminine ending with enjambment.
- Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
Time is here given a physical quality, unusually, and the word sluttish is associated with the world of whores and dubious morals. The suggestion is that material things eventually become dirtied and degraded but that this will not happen to the person.
Regular iambics returns. Note the prominence of the letter s. Besmear is to cover with a sticky or greasy substance.
More Analysis Line by Line
- When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
Start of the second quatrain taking the reader in to the war zone, with an immediate full on alliterative opening image - the icons are falling as the steady iambic rhythm echoes that of marching foot soldiers.
- And broils root out the work of masonry,
The war against property continues in the sixth line. Broil means chaos and commotion, also battles, and root out is to get to the bottom of or dig up, so more violence is expressed here, aimed at the stonework again, never humanity.
The variation on a theme of the letter o is nowhere better exemplified than in this line.
- Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The god Mars enters the fray, classical Roman god of war. Venus was his consort. A parallel with the opening negative Not, nor places emphasis on what the sword and quick fire cannot do.
A splendid line, each word a single syllable, the whole line a joy to read as the anaphora (repeated word or phrase) of Nor Mars....nor war's is an echo almost of the battlefield. Again, pure iambics with enjambment for good measure, smoothly taking the reader to the next line.
- The living record of your memory.
No matter the violence of future war and military strife, what will prevail is the positive about you, so alive in memory.
- 'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Praise continues in the third quatrain, the speaker clearly declaring that even death and ignorant hostility won't stand in his lover's way.
** Line 9 is a challenge because the iambics are not quite as clear and the syllabics of all-oblivious enmity demand careful attention from the reader. You can scan 'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity as a full eleven syllables ('Gainst death and all-ob-liv-i-ous enmity) which becomes 4 iambs and a dactyl or regular ten syllables ('Gainst death and all-ob-liv-ious enmity) which becomes 4 iambs and a pyrrhic.
- Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room,
Onwards and upwards is the life message, there will always be space enough for respect and gratitude. One of the strongest, assertive lines, looking to the future with great positivity.
A line of single syllables and alliteration all wrapped up in iambic pentameter. Simple, effective.
- Even in the eyes of all posterity
This third quatrain overflows with compliments and predictions. Future generations will look on you with admiration.
Note the change from iambic to trochaic in the first foot, giving emphasis to the line.
- That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, there is no mistaking the sentiment here. Generations may eventually bring the world to a weary halt, yet still the love, respect and praise will remain. The idea of doom is biblical in origin, as is Judgement Day which appears later on in the sonnet.
Regular iambics and alliteration bring the third quatrain to a neat end.
End Couplet of Sonnet 55
- So, till the judgement that yourself arise,
And to conclude, until the day of judgement (when christians rise up, through Jesus Christ) you will be alive in the poem.
- You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
The object of the speaker's admiration, be it the fair youth, the young lord, the lovely boy, Venus, Love itself lives on in the sonnet itself, as well as in the eyes of your love.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2017 Andrew Spacey