Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Shakespeare’s central theme is the opposition between the transitory, delicate nature of beauty and the devastating effect on beauty of mortality and its principal instrument, time. The opening questions seem rhetorical, indirectly arguing the poet’s conviction that beauty is no match for aging and death. The final two lines dispel the gloomy predictions implicit in the questions, however, by pointing to the power of the written word to sustain its subject—in this case, beauty. As the poem advances through the first two quatrains, the changes in the images of time suggest an increase in the implacable strength of time, which only “o’er-sways” in the second line but turns to a “rage” and then a “wreckful siege of battering days” attacking such impressive things as “rocks impregnable” and “gates of steel.”

The final two lines, by opposing “black ink” with the light which the poet’s love emits, leave the reader with the central conflict of the poet’s vision: light (beauty) is opposed by darkness (black ink), and therefore utter annihilation. The balancing imagery of the final line suggests a resolution to this conflict and so ends the poem on a bright note, literally on the word “bright” itself: The poet’s love, expressed in this written sonnet, is the one force that can successfully oppose time and death. The word “still” in the last line introduces a paradox. If “my love” is “still,” meaning lifeless,...

(The entire section is 590 words.)