Than on dust-covered gravestones, ravaged by time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
When devastating war shall overturn statues,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
And conflicts destroy the mason's handiwork,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
the cause of war (Mars) nor the effects of war (fire) shall destroy
The living record of your memory.
The living record of your memory (this poem).
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Against death and destruction, which render people forgotten,
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Shall you push onward; praise of you will always find a place,
Even in the eyes of all posterity
Even in the eyes of future generations
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
That survive until the end of humanity.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
So, until you arise on Judgment Day,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
You are immortalized in this poetry, and continue to live in lovers' eyes.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments (1): This line is likely an allusion to the lavish tombs of English royalty; in particular, to the tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey, which contains a large sarcophagus made of black marble with gilded effigies of King Henry and his queen, Elizabeth of York.
unswept (4): note that the pronunciation here is /UN swept/.
with sluttish time (4): i.e., by filthy time.
In Elizabethan England the word "sluttish" could describe either a sexually promiscuous woman or a grubby, unkempt woman. Here Shakespeare personifies Time as the latter.
broils (7): angry, violent quarrels or riots.
all-oblivious enmity (9): i.e., the war and decay that would render the subject of the poem forgotten.
Sonnet 55 is one of Shakespeare's most famous works and a noticeable deviation from other sonnets in which he appears insecure about his relationships and his own self-worth. Here we find an impassioned burst of confidence as the poet claims to have the power to keep his friend's memory alive evermore.
Some critics argue that Shakespeare's sudden swell of pride in his poetry was strictly artificial - a blatant attempt to mimic the style of the classical poets. "It is difficult on any other hypothesis to reconcile the inflated egotism of such a one as 55 with the unassuming dedications to the Venus and Lucrece, 1593 and 1594, or with the expressions of humility found in the sonnets themselves, e.g. 32 and 38" (Halliwell-Phillipps, 304).
However, many believe that such an analysis ignores Shakespeare's paramount desire to immortalize his friend in verse, and not himself (as was the motive of most classical poets). "The Romans say: Because of my poem I will never die. Shakespeare says: Because of my poem you will never die....What distinguishes Shakespeare is that he values the identity of the beloved; he recognizes that the beloved has his own personal immortality, in no way dependent on poetry" (Martin, 158).
By focusing on the word live, Shakespeare uses the language itself to emphasize his authorial intentions. Notice the word choices of outlive (2), living (8), oblivious (9), and live (14).
Despite its tremendous popularity, Sonnet 55 has its detractors. One of the most interesting attacks on the sonnet came from a critic named H. T. S. Forrest, who despised the poem and, in particular, lines 10-14. These lines, he wrote, are
slovenly, far-fetched, and tautologous verses which would be mercilessly criticized if they appeared as the handiwork of the minutest of the minor poets of today. Why "even"? To talk of printed matter "finding room" in people's eyes is not a little ridiculous. In line 11 the poet's verses are going to be looked upon by the whole of posterity, but in line 14 only by the 'lovers' section thereof. And line 13 is hopelessly ungrammatical, even if we accept Beeching's explanation that that = when (Forrest, 44).
Forrest, H. T. S. The Five Authors of Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: Chapman & Dodd, Ltd., 1923.
Halliwell-Phillipps, J.O. Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare. New York, AMS Press, 1966.
Martin, Philip J. T. Shakespeare's Sonnets: Self, Love and Art. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1972.
How to Cite this Article
Mabillard, Amanda. An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 55. Shakespeare Online. 2000. (day/month/year you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/55detail.html >.