What is the meaning of Shakespeare's Sonnet 55?

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I would just like to point out a beautiful use of language in one line of Shakespeare's Sonnet LV. This is to be found at the end of the line "When wasteful war shall statues overturn..." The normal syntax would be "When wasteful war shall overturn statues," but by reversing those two words Shakespeare creates a more vivid image of statues being toppled. The bottoms of these statues seem to come falling ahead of the tops.

It should be noted that Shelley does something similar in his "Ode to the West Wind" in the following two lines:

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

The normal syntax, of course, would be:

Thou, from whose unseen presence the dead leaves

Are driven, like ghosts fleeing from an enchanter.

The effect Shelley achieves by reversing the last two words of each of the above-quoted lines is--besides being a stroke of pure genius--to make the imaginary leaves seem to be tumbling over each other, so that those in back overtake the ones in front in their panic to flee from the invisible enchanter.

The beauty and the value of Shakespeare's sonnets is to be found in the words, the lines, the imagery, the conceits. These things are far more important than the answers to or guesses about such questions as "Whom was the speaker addressing?" or "Who was the dark lady?"

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"Sonnet LV" by William Shakespeare has two themes: the passing of time and the immortalizing of a young man. The first half of Shakespeare's sonnets dealt with his love for a young man and forever keeping him alive through the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote.

This poem is narrated from the first person point of view.  The poet speaks directly to the youth referred to in the sonnet.  The tone of the poem is serious and confident in the ability of the sonnet to commemorate the youth's life.

The Shakespearean sonnet has fourteen lines with three quatrains[four lines] and a rhyming couplet or the last two lines.  The rhyme scheme follows this pattern: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Usually at line 9, the poem changes directions slightly in its theme.

The first quatrain points up the idea that neither royal marble or gold monuments will be able to outline the power of poetry.  The young man will out shine even the graveyard stones that are damaged by the elements and time. 

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.

The second quatrain accentuates that when the destructive wars are fought and damages art work and statues  and the battles ruin the work  of the architects and the brick masons...neither the Roman god of war nor his mighty weapons who cause the wars to break out and fires caused in battle...none of these things will burn away the memory of your life.

The third quatrain speaks to the fact that the young man will outlive death and oblivion in the eyes of future generations and even until the end of time.

The final couplet states that when Judgment day comes, you will be taken by Christ to heaven; until then,  you will live on in this sonnet and in the eyes of lovers.

Shakespeare did understand the power of the written word. It has been over four hundred years since the poem was written, and the Sonnet LV about the young man is still being read.

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What is the meaning of Sonnet 55?

Shakespeare begins sonnet 55 with the profound declaration that the stone upon which the sonnet is carved will out last the living, but confidently asserts that “You” will  "outlive this mere stonework" of the sonnet.  Nothing, not even war or time can destroy the sonnet, but “God's Judgment Day places a limit on the sonnet's power to transcend those natural, historical, and human forces that diminish and dissolve memorials carved in stone.” The original form of the sonnet will remain until that final reckoning, when the beloved youth will surely be resurrected, in order to touch hearts of those who read it. In my opinion, I wonder if the is maybe some symbol of Jesus Christ?  I may be totally off base here, but, hey it is open for interpretation, right?  Please check the link below for a more detailed analysis of this sonnet.  It is wonderfully helpful.

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What is the meaning of Sonnet 55?

I'd like to give you a paraphrased, line-by-line translation of the poem, so you're able to compare Shakespeare's language to our modern version. I assume you have a copy of the original poem.

Not marble, nor the gold-plated shrines
Of princes shall outlive the power of poetry;
You shall shine more bright in these verses
Than on dust-covered gravestones,ravaged by time. When devastating war shall overturn statues,
And conflicts destroy the mason's handiwork,
The cause of war (Mars) nor the effects of war (fire) shall destroy
The living record of your memory (this poem).
Against death and destruction that causes people to be forgotten,
You will push onward; you will always be praised,
Even in the eyes of future generations
That survive until the end of humanity.
So, until judgment day, when you will rise again
You live in this poetry, and people will still love you.

Explaining the sonnet in this way helps my students to be able to better understand Shakespearean language. This is a translation I've had for a few years. Hopefully, it helps you as well.

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What is the meaning of Sonnet 55?

The basic idea of the sonnet is that poetry is eternal, and whoever a poet chooses to write about becomes eternal/immortal along with the poem.  In Sonnet 55, Shakespeare goes through images of war, kingdoms, and structures which will all die away, but he claims the words he writes to his love will live on forever.  For more information about the imagery, check out the link below.

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Explain Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare.

Sonnet 55 most likely has two purposes, the most important being to insure the poet's lover that his or her beauty will outlive time and events and, less important, to claim the primacy of the written word.

The first quatrain establishes the power of the poem to make the lover's beauty remembered for all time:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of Princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;/But you shall shine more bright in these contents. . . .

In other words, poetry will outlive marble and gilded (surfaced by gold) monuments, and the lover's beauty will shine more brightly in these verses than monuments that have deteriorated over time ("besmear'd with sluttish time"--"sluttish" meaning "sloppy").

Not only will the lover's beauty outlive the ravages of time, but also such events as war and other conflicts will not effect the poem's ability to memorialize the lover for all time (ll.5-8).

In the third quatrain, Shakespeare takes on the most serious threats to the permanence of his lover's beauty:

'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.

Even death--and any other thing that would erase the lover's beauty ("all-oblivious enmity")--cannot keep the lover's beauty from being acknowledged by people of all time ("eyes of all posterity") until doomsday.

The couplet confirms the assertion in lines 11 and 12 that, until the lover is summoned from the grave on Judgment Day, the lover lives both in the poem and in the eyes of all other lovers.


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