Shakespeare’s sonnet 55 is one of many poems in his collection of sonnets that deal with the theme of mutability, or the constant change and instability that are typical of life on earth. Mutability was a favorite theme of writers during the middle ages and the Renaissance, and sonnet 55 is one of the classic expressions of this idea. At the same time, the poem also emphasizes another key idea from this period – the idea that being celebrated in great poetry can help the person extolled in such poetry to cheat mutability (including death) by giving him or her a reputation that will last forever. Yet Shakespeare ends this poem with a clever twist, suggesting that the only way to achieve true immortality and transcendence is to be saved at the end of time by God.
In the opening section of the poem, the speaker argues that neither marble nor the gold-covered monuments erected by (or to celebrate) royalty will outlast the powerful poetry that the poet is offering the addressee (a young man). The addressee will be more visible within the contents of this poetry than any neglected stone (perhaps a marker on a grave) that has become less visible thanks to the effects of time, which is compared to an unkempt whore.
Next, the speaker tells the young man that even though war can lead to the destruction of statues erected in honor of previously powerful people, and even though conflict can destroy strongly constructed buildings made of stone, neither the sword of Mars (a symbol of war) not the raging fires common during wars will destroy other people’s memories of the young man. The young man will continue to live within the minds of any people who read the poet’s sonnets celebrating him.
The young man will thus defy death as well as the hatred of anyone who might wish that he will be neglected. The young man will be praised all the way to the end of time (“Even in the eyes of all posterity”) and right up to the “ending doom” of Judgment Day. This kind of claim – that a great writer, through great writing, could help the person celebrated in such writing enjoy a permanently good reputation – was quite common during the Renaissance. Less common, however, was the twist Shakespeare gives the idea in his poem’s final two lines:
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
In other words, the poet can promise only a kind of immortality that will finally seem far less important than the true immortality that can be bestowed only by God during the final judgment. Only God can cause dead human beings literally to “arise” from their graves and ascend into heaven. (Conversely, only God can finally cast the unworthy into hell, although the poet does not openly make this point; it is, if anything, merely implied.)
This ending to the poem is highly significant because it helps undercut the poet’s pride in his own powers. For the first twelve lines of the poem, the speaker has come very close to boasting about his own abilities. In the final two lines, however, he suddenly reminds us that there is a God whose power is far greater than that of any mere human author.