Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.
Optimism isn't the most prominent feature of Shakespeare's
sonnets, but here the poet sees a great future for his poem.
Addressing himself probably to a young aristocrat, the speaker
boasts that while concrete monuments may decay or burn, his poem
will escape such ravages of "sluttish time." This sort of brag was
the stuff of contemporary defenses of poetry. The memory of an
Achilles or an Aeneas would be utterly lost, defenders claimed, if
we had to count on "gilded monuments," which are impressive to the
eye but helpless before time. The speaker claims to do for his
young man what Homer did for Achilles.
Shakespeare's own eulogists reaffirm his perhaps hubristic
forecast. Ben Jonson, in the first edition of Shakespeare's
collected works, called the Bard a "Moniment [monument], without a
tomb," still alive "while thy Book doth live." Later, John Milton
wrote Shakespeare an epitaph mocking the notion that the poet would
ever require an elaborate structure to house his "honor'd bones."
Shakespeare built himself "a lasting Monument," the folio
collection of his works, and that is the only "tomb" he will ever