Forms and Devices
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679
Sonnet 55 is one of a series of 154 sonnets written in the first person—the first 126 are addressed to a young man, and the remaining sonnets (127-154) are addressed to or refer to a dark lady. A rival poet is a third character in the drama of the sonnets. Some scholars believe that the sonnets tell a story that is a reflection of Shakespeare’s private life, while others claim that the sonnets are a literary exercise. In either event, the accumulated sonnets tell a story of love, lust, separation from the beloved, betrayal, repentance, and self-loathing.
Sonnet 55 is typical of the form that has become known as the Shakespearean sonnet. Its fourteen lines generally consist of three quatrains (three sets of four lines each), the first of which puts forth a poetic idea that the two following quatrains explore and develop. The quatrains are followed by two final lines (a couplet) that punctuate, draw a conclusion to, or make an ironic comment on the ideas the poet has been exploring in the quatrains. The lines are written in iambic pentameter, and the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg.
Although each sonnet, as a rule, can stand on its own as an individual poem, it is a good idea to look at the sonnets that surround it. Sonnet 54 sets up Sonnet 55 by bringing up the idea that the essence of a person may be distilled by poetry in the same manner that the essence of a rose may be distilled. After death, the substance of the rose or of the person may perish, but it lives on by virtue of its remaining essence. The first quatrain of Sonnet 55 elaborates the idea that the young man will live perpetually in the poet’s verse. The imagery of fragile flowers gives way to grand marble and elaborate, gilded stone monuments. The final line of the quatrain is thick with alliteration and vivid imagery that tells of “unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.” The contrast implies the passage of a very long time—centuries, perhaps—and reinforces the power of the verse that will eternalize the essence of the young man’s brightly shining self.
The second quatrain elaborates the idea of the durability of poetry through the use of images of war and destruction. Overturned statues and “broils” (battles) that “root out the work of masonry” summon up the image of a city left in ruins. The introduction of Mars, the ancient god of war, suggests once again the passage of ages. Shakespeare’s use of the word “record” evokes the image of record books and reminds the reader that a poem is written on paper that is easily destroyed by the fires of war. Yet the essence of a poem lies not in the paper upon which it is written but in the ideas and emotions expressed by the poet, who contends that his rhyme is so powerful that it will outlive even this dire threat of destruction.
The third quatrain puts the idea of eternity in the foreground. The lines speak of death, oblivion, and the “ending doom.” Most people’s memories fade into the oblivious mists of time. However, the young man of the sonnets will keep pace with the time. As time progresses, this praise, this poetry, this essence of the young man will keep pace with its passage. Even to the end of days, when posterity’s posterity has outworn the world, men will remember and praise the young subject of the verse—he will live in their eyes, the window to their souls. The “So” of the final couplet announces the summing up of the ideas and the themes of the sonnet. The phrases “ending doom” and “the judgment” are references to the Christian belief in the Last Judgment. On this day, after the Second Coming of Christ, the world and time will come to a violent end. This suggests that the essence or the life force of the young man, distilled in the poet’s words, will outlive life itself.