The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

Sonnet 55 is one of a collection of 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare and expresses one of the major themes of these sonnets: Poetry is eternal and will immortalize the subject of the poem. The tone of the first quatrain, or first four lines, reflects the extreme confidence of the poet: His “powerful rhyme” is compared to durable marble and solid, gilded memorials that mark the graves of princes. The monuments for the Elizabethan royals and aristocracy often consisted of a full-length portrait of the deceased carved in high relief on the stone cover of a coffin. The sonnet is compared not only to the lastingness of stone but also to an enduring image of the deceased. The poet asserts that his portrait of the young man, written in verse on fragile paper, will outlive even the marble memorials of princes, which will inevitably become neglected, “unswept stone” with the inexorable passage of time. In this sonnet, Shakespeare gives time a character. In this case, time is “sluttish,” suggesting that it is dirty and careless. “Sluttish” can also mean whorish. Time, then, cares for no individual; it is immoral and will, in its slovenly and whorish manner, pass. The grand memorials will become eroded, and the people memorialized will eventually be forgotten. However, the subject of the poem will “shine more bright” than the time-smeared monuments and live not in effigy but in essence in Shakespeare’s verse.

The second quatrain intensifies the poet’s declaration. The imagery of long-forgotten, cold stone monuments gives way to active, deliberate devastation. The young man will be remembered despite the wrack and ruin of “wasteful war.” When marble statues topple and stone buildings and other “works of masonry” are destroyed, the poetry will live on. Not even the flaming sword of mighty Mars, the god of war himself, is able to “burn/ The living record” of the young man’s memory. The final quatrain contains the powerful image of the young man striding like a Titan through time “’Gainst death and all oblivious enmity.” He will “pace forth” and be not only remembered but also praised in the eyes of “all posterity” even to posterity’s end. His memory will outwear the world and survive “the ending doom,” the Apocalypse itself.

The couplet—the final two lines of the poem—draws a conclusion and sums up the ideas that have accumulated with each successive quatrain. The young man will live in “this,” the poet’s verse, until Judgment Day. On that day, the bodies of all humanity are to be resurrected and reunited with the soul, and judgment will be passed as to which souls will suffer in hell and which will rise to heaven. He, too, will face his individual judgment and will “arise” to heaven rather than be damned to hell.

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