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Shakespeare Sonnet 55: "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 55: "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments"

In sonnet 55 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is lovingly addressing his sonnet. 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. He waxes especially dramatic as he addresses his belovèd 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, beauty, and love—the speaker’s favorite triumvirate. He believes that 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"

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.

*Please note: 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 builds his strong argument around his bold opening statement, praising his poem, while addressing the sonnet directly in order to both praise it and to laud his own ability to immortalize his splendid subjects without sounding boastful.

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. Despite being built of sturdy, hard materials, the statues erected to "princes" will not be able to rival the staying-power of this poets compositions. 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 speaker understands that truth remains inspired by the soul; thus it will remain far longer than any physical material.

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 written document that memorializes the subject of his sonnet. 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 submitted into the record of 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 recorded documents 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 brutish wars that are fought destroy the landscape, they cannot touch the living record of truth contained in poetry.

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. This clever, creative speaker is always revealing his dedication to the permanent over the temporary, the real vs the fake, and truth over fabrication.

The speaker then asserts that the lauded poem will find a place in the hearts and minds of humanity down through the generations that will exist until the world finally vanishes. As always, 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 as long as those works are in circulation.

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 in the knowledge that his creative works will enjoy many allusions, and quotations will abound that point to the truth and beauty of his tireless efforts. His prescience has been gloriously validated even up to five centuries after his prediction.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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