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An analysis of Shakespeare's diction and tone in "Sonnet 55."

Summary:

In "Sonnet 55," Shakespeare's diction and tone emphasize the enduring power of poetry. His choice of words, such as "marble," "gilded," and "monuments," conveys a sense of permanence and grandeur. The tone is assertive and confident, as Shakespeare declares that his verse will outlast physical structures and the ravages of time, ensuring the eternal memory of the subject.

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How would you describe Shakespeare's diction in "Sonnet 55"?

Shakespeare's diction in "Sonnet 55" may be considered harsh when describing the realities of this world and lofty when talking about his love.  The theme of the poem is that while the base things of this earth will pass away, the beauty of this woman will remain forever pure and bright within the lines of this sonnet.

The diction (word choice) to describe the harshness of the real world includes the following: 

"marble"--a beautiful but hard stone

"gilded"--looks like gold but only gold-covered

"unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time" - hard and unyielding rock, though long-lasting, is marked with the dirt and grime which accumulate over time.

Then begins the more violent imagery of a war waged on this earth by time.  There are "wasteful wars" which knock down the once-beautiful statues and monuments and "broils" the mortar out from between stones--undoubtedly causing structures to fall.  Mars, the Greek god of war, can destroy everything with his sword or by burning--everything but her memory, even in the face of death and enmity, can and will be destroyed.  The ravages of time will "wear this world out to the ending doom" when everything will be destroyed. 

The sonnet begins with an elevated diction of praise, as noted in words such as "powerful," "shine," and "bright."  Then the words an images, as noted above, turn harsh.  The shift in tone to a more lofty diction happens again primarily in the final five lines of the sonnet.  Words like "praise" and "arise" and "lover's eyes" (a traditional image of beauty) depict an entirely different and softer tone.  Even the words "live" and "dwell" and "posterity" are a stark contrast to the grimy, finite, "doomed" world. 

This use of contrasting images and words--one to reflect the beauty and greatness of love or a loved one who will liveforever for posterity through poetry and one to depict the starkness and finality of a fallen world--is not uncommon in Shakespeare's sonnets.  I've included a great enotes link below for further study. 

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What is the tone of Shakespeare's Sonnet 55?

Sonnet 55's tone is one of somber celebration, appropriate for praising someone of high status. All of the poet's allusions are solemn and concerned with death. "Gilded monuments" are built after the princes referred to have died, and war is a primary instrument of death.

But Shakespeare writes the verse to literally immortalize his subject, saying that none of the ravages of time or conflict can erase the praiseworthiness of the one referenced. What is interesting here is the final couplet. Although the rest of the sonnet could easily refer to the poet's patron, or some high official, the final line, "You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes" seems to indicate that, instead, it refers to a romantic object. The line is, in fact, in contrast with the rest of the sonnet, and we continue to speculate why Shakespeare would choose to comment on a personal relationship so formally.

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What is the tone of Shakespeare's Sonnet 55?

The tone in Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 is one of great confidence and hope.  The speaker is confidently pronouncing how the object of his affection will outlive all the "marble ... (and) the gilded monuments/of princes" and shall "shine more bright ... than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time," or any other "works of masonry" created to honor and commemorate great figures of the past (1-4).  These things will not last; the object of his affection will.   Even war, death, and the world's ultimate doom will not triumph over the object of his affection.  He/she will conquer all, as the poet states:
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire, shall burn The living record of your memory. 'Gainst death and all oblivious enmity Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room Even in the eyes of all posterity That wear this world out to the ending doom  (7-12).
The reason his object will triumph and survive over all these obstacles, even while others are crushed and forgotten, is because he/she lives on in this poem:
So till the judgment that yourself arise, You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
Because the poet holds this strong belief, he has hope and confidence that both his words and his love will last - and this tone comes across in the sonnet.
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What is the tone of Shakespeare's Sonnet 55?

Shakespeare's language and tone in Sonnet 55 are, to an extent, more distant and austere than one finds in many of the sonnets. One notices that the speaker addresses the beloved, the Fair Youth, with "you" instead of "thou." Although the shift in the standard second-person pronouns was already occurring in the seventeenth century, "you" was still a more formal, respectful, and less intimate manner of address.

The speaker's tone clearly shows his awe of the object of his love and praise. The comparison is made with matters of state—princes and war—and with mythology in the reference to Mars, the god of war. And yet, at the end, in the final couplet, one can see a softening of the language and a humbler tone, given the reference to the Last Judgment. It is as if the speaker has yielded his elevated ranking of the Fair Youth in deference to God's ranking.

The principal idea expressed in Sonnet 55, I would argue, is that poetry and art in general can confer immortality upon an individual in a way that the material world cannot. It's interesting to compare this poem with a very well-known sonnet by another English writer, Edmund Spenser. One of the most famous sonnets in Spenser's Amoretti begins "One day I wrote her name upon the strand, / But came the waves and washed it away." The speaker is then chided by his beloved for vainly believing he can "immortalize" her. He counters that it's not the physical depiction of her name but rather his verse, his art, that will make the idea of her live forever. Shakespeare's theme is similar to Spenser's: "marble and gilded monuments," though stronger and more durable, are analogous to a name written in the sand. The material world will pass away, but art, "this powerful rhyme," is the means by which the one being addressed (the so-called Fair Youth) "shall shine more bright" than stone until Judgment Day.

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