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.

"Sonnet 55," 1–4

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 need.

Themes: greatness