Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 679 words.)