How might one interpret Shakespeare's Sonnet 65, "Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,"?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Sonnet 65 continues Sonnet 64's theme of the ravages of time, which is perhaps the most moving of the two sonnets.  The principal theme is, however, the transience of all things powerful and beautiful, threatened by Time:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,/But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,/How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,/Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

Shakespeare compares the ability of beauty,"no stronger than a flower," to survive that onslaught of time that destroys such powerful elements as metal, stone, earth, the sea itself.  Shakespeare interestingly uses a legal construct--"hold a plea"--to describe the struggle between beauty and the powerful work of time.

In the second quatrain, Shakespeare shifts the comparison for this unavoidable battle in human affairs from beauty to the seasons, in this case, summer:

How will the honeyed breath of summer withstand/The Battering storm of time, When mortality even destroys/Great rocks and gates made of iron?

Here, the metaphor of life, summer, is even more delicate than the earlier beauty--"the honeyed breath of summer"--as ephemeral as it sounds as absolutely no chance of surviving the grinding effects of "Great rocks and gates made of iron," as well as the "battering storm of time."  The image of "breath" against such adamantine powers as rocks and iron reinforces its delicate, vulnerable nature .

Given the dramatic difference between the relative strengths of the two elements at odds with each other--beauty against time and nature--the poet express his very real concern about which can survive:

O fearful meditation! were, alack,/Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?/Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?/Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?

The poet naturally wonders--given the difference between beauty's strength and the over-powering power of earth's elements--what can possible save his lover's beauty--does he have to hide beauty from time?  Shakespeare explicit refers to the Greek God Mercury when he refers to holding "his swift foot back."

The couplet, providing the solution to this seemingly insurmountable problem:  the poet's own verse, extolling his lover's beauty in the permanence of black ink, will effectively stop the ravages of time in its tracks.  Time, unlike its power over life and beauty, has no power over the written word, and ink will preserve his love's beauty long after time has done its work.

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