Sonnet 55 — Not marble, not the gilded monuments — Meaning
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 .. No Marble, nor the Gilded Monuments …
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
Meaning .. Shakespeare starts with a very assertive statement. He feels his Sonnet is immune to the destructive potential of time. With passage of time, almost everything human beings create get devoured by time. Whole cities have been wiped out due to the inescapable wear and tear inflicted by the elements. At times, they fall prey to military conquests and are raged to the ground. Kings, emperors, and the rich and the powerful build tombs, memorials, graves, and monuments to immortalize themselves on earth long after they are gone. These majestic structures built with the best and the sturdiest materials defy destruction for some time – a few centuries, at best – but succumb to the ravenous Nature, slowly losing their luster and glamour. Stone by stone, brick by brick, they fall apart till they vanish into oblivion. So destruction of every man-made monument is written in every stone they are built with.
Shakespeare declares that his sonnets, with no destructible element in them, are undying. This is because they reach out to the hearts and minds of people. The lyrical attraction, and the emotion they convey impart them the power to defy time.
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.
Now, it emerges that Shakespeare wrote these lines as a paean for someone (referred to as ‘you’) whom he loved very intensely. The bard feels that the glory and goodness of his beloved friend as narrated in his lines will set the heart of the readers aglow with pleasure, delight and admiration.
As per the Speaker, the vibrancy of his sonnet will be in sharp contrast with the mellowed, dist-laden, weathered, and eroded monuments that are slowly being robbed of their grandeur with the passage of time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Meaning … Historically, marauding conquerors target monuments, tombs and memorials. Pillaging the structures so beautifully and strenuously built gives them a sense of victory and vengeful satisfaction. So, we come across umpteen instances of commanders of armies turning on the memorials of the mortals they want to humiliate even much after their deaths.
Shakespeare underlines the transitory nature of man-made edifices to bring into relief the power and passion of his praise for his beloved.
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
Meaning … Shakespeare returns to shower accolades on his beloved friend. He avers that the passion and longing for the memories for his friend are too deeply etched in his sonnet to be erased or forgotten with the passage of time. In an allegorical way, Shakespeare conjures up the vision of a savage war and a sword. He tries to underscore the fact that the strong emotions glorifying the persona and qualities of his friend in the sonnet can withstand the ravages of the sword and the war.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Meaning … Shakespeare continues to express his great adoration for his friend. Like a soul possessed, he sings his praise. The friend, the bard says, will tread the path of wars and destruction, but would emerge unscathed. No matter when he dies or how he dies, his glory will remain unaffected for all times to come.
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
Meaning ….. The speaker clearly is overwhelmed by the tide of emotions for his beloved friend. This gets reflected in the audacious manner in which he proclaims that his sonnet depicting his love for his friend will continue to be read by one and all. Such love for the sonnet and the beloved person will continue undiminished for all times to come. Till the world survives, the love for the sonnet would survive.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
Meaning …. The beloved friend may die, but he will continue to live in the Sonnet 55, and be admired by the countless readers who would be smitten by him as intensely as Shakespeare has been. He will continue to live like this until the day of Final Judgment when he will be resurrected.
[Readers’ comments welcome]