The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The opening quatrain of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 asks how beauty can resist that power in nature which destroys brass, stone, earth, and the sea, since beauty is less durable and powerful than any of those. The earth and sea together cannot withstand death, the dismal (“sad”) state that overpowers everything in nature. In the third line, mortality becomes “this rage”—a violent anger, even a kind of madness, that opposes a most fragile supplicant, beauty. If the earth itself is no match for this force, beauty seems to have no hope of lasting, since its strength is no more than a flower’s.
The second quatrain repeats the opening question, beauty now characterized by another of nature’s insubstantial and temporary forms, “summer’s honey breath,” which the poet sees as the victim of an assault by a “wreckful siege” in the form of “battering days.” The “earth” alluded to in the opening line is represented here as “rocks impregnable,” and brass has been replaced by “gates of steel.” Neither of these substantial forms can withstand time’s battering and corrosive force. Though asking a question, the speaker implies that any resistance to time is doomed and, further, that natural things are in constant battle with a force that nothing survives, least of all something as evanescent as summer’s breath.
The third quatrain begins with an expostulation that expresses the poet’s feelings as he confronts the prospect of time’s onslaught: “O fearful meditation!” Even flight is futile, for beauty, now represented as a jewel, cannot escape being encased finally and forever in “Time’s chest.” Time is then characterized as the swift runner whose foot cannot be held back. No outside force—no “hand”—can or will reach out and rescue beauty from time’s onward thrust. At the close of the third quatrain, beauty is not only a doomed supplicant but also a helpless victim of time’s plundering. At this point, the poet appears to have accepted the inevitable annihilation of beauty by time’s relentless onslaught.
The final couplet offers hope, however—the written word. Mere ink, imbued with the poet’s love, offers the only defense against Time’s annihilating power, for the poet’s words have the miraculous ability to reflect beauty’s splendor in a timeless state.