Sonnet 55 is one of the best and most critically acclaimed sonnets of the 154 sonnets written by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. It is a member of the Fair Youth sequence, in which the poet expresses his love towards a young man.
According to many scholars, sonnet 55 is a poem about time and immortalization. The speaker claims that his beloved will wear out this world to the ending doom. According to Alison Scott, the speaker's poem won't last much compared to his beloved, even though his beloved is immortalised in the poem, adhering to a larger theme of giving and possessing that runs through many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. David Kaula, however, emphasizes the concept of time slightly differently. He argues that the sonnet traces the progression of time, from the physical endeavours built by man (monuments, statues, masonry), as well as the primeval notion of warfare depicted through the image of “Mars his sword” and “war’s quick fire,” to the concept of the Last Judgment. The young man will survive all of these things through the verses of the speaker.
These monuments, statues, and masonry reference both Horace’s Odes and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lars Engle argues that echoing the ancients, as the speaker does when he says “not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;” further solidifies the speaker’s claim about the longevity of the written word. However, while Horace and Ovid claim the immortality for themselves, the speaker in sonnet 55 bestows it on another. Engle also claims that this is not the first time Shakespeare references the self-aggrandizement of royals and rulers by saying that poetry will outlive them. He frequently mentions his own (political) unimportance, which could lead sonnet 55 to be read as a sort of revenge of the socially humble on their oppressors.
While the first quatrain is referential and full of imagery, in the second quatrain Ernest Fontana focuses on the epithet “sluttish time.” The Oxford English Dictionary gives “sluttish” two definitions: 1) dirty, careless, slovenly (which can refer to objects and persons of both sexes) and 2) lewd, morally loose, and whorish. According to Fontana, Shakespeare intended the second meaning, personifying and assigning gender to time, making the difference between the young man sonnets and the dark lady sonnets all the more obvious. Shakespeare had used the word “slut” nearly a year before he wrote sonnet 55 when he wrote Timon of Athens. In the play, Timon associates the word “slut” with “whore” and venereal disease. Associating “sluttish” with venereal disease makes Shakespeare’s use of the word “besmeared” more specific. Fontana states: “The effect of time, personified as a whore, on the hypothetical stone statue of the young man, is identified in metaphor with the effect of syphilis on the body—the statue will be besmeared, that is, covered, with metaphoric blains, lesions, and scars.” (Female) time destroys whereas the male voice of the sonnet is “generative and vivifying.”
Helen Vendler expands on the idea of “sluttish time” by examining how the speaker bestows grandeur on entities when they are connected to the beloved but mocks them and associates them with dirtiness when they’re connected with something the speaker hates. She begins by addressing the “grand marble” and “gilded” statues and monuments; these are called this way when the speaker compares them to the verse immortalizing the beloved. However, when compared to “sluttish time” they are “unswept stone besmeared.” The same technique occurs in the second quatrain. Battle occurs between mortal monuments of princes, conflict is crude and vulgar, “wasteful war” overturns unelaborated statues and “broils” root out masonry. Later in quatrain war becomes “war’s quick fire” and “broils” become “Mars his sword.” The war is suddenly grand and the foes are emboldened. The blatant contempt with which the speaker regards anything not having to do with the young man, or anything that works against the young man’s immortality, raises the adoration of the young man by contrast alone. Like the other critics, Vendler recognizes the theme of time in this sonnet. She expands on this by arguing that the sonnet revolves around the keyword “live.” In quatrain 1, the focus is the word “outlive.” In quatrain 2 it’s “living;” in quatrain 3 “oblivious,” and the couplet focuses on the word “live” itself. However, this raises the question of whether the young man actually continues to live bodily or if only his memory remains. There are references to being alive physically with active phrases like “you shall shine in these contents” and “’gainst death and all oblivious enmity / shall you pace forth,” and also to living in memory: “the living record of your memory,” and “your praise shall…find room…in the eyes of all posterity.” Vendler argues that this question is answered by the couplet when it assigns “real” living to the day of the Last Judgment: “So till the judgment that your self arise / you live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.”
Interestingly, while researching the First Folios in the Folger Library, Robert Evans came across an epitaph for Shakespeare that was previously unrecorded. The epitaph appears in verse, similar to that of the sonnets, and shows just how highly Shakespeare's contemporaries thought of his work. The lines of the epitaph themselves echo lines from sonnet 55, which bring into thought the ideas of that particular sonnet itself. Through the verses of the sonnet, the young man becomes immortal. Through the verses of the epitaph, as well as the larger context of praise for the dead poet, Shakespeare himself becomes immortal, echoing and reinforcing his very argument in sonnet 55.
- Scott, Alison. "Hoarding the Treasure and Squandering the Truth: Giving and Possessing in Shakespeare's Sonnets to the Young Man." Studies in Philology, Volume 101, Number 3, Summer 2004, pp. 315-331
- Kaula, David. "In War With Time: Temporal Perspectives in Shakespeare's Sonnets". Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 3, No. 1, The English Renaissance (Winter, 1963), pp. 45-57. JSTOR Database
- Engle, Lars. "Afloat in Thick Deeps: Shakespeare's Sonnets on Certainty." PMLA, Vol. 104, No. 5 (Oct., 1989), pp. 832-843. JSTOR Database
- Fontana, E. "Shakespeare's Sonnet 55." The Explicator v. 45 (Spring 1987) p. 6-8. EBSCO Host Database
- Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.
- Evans, Robert. "Whome None but Death Could Shake: An Unreported Epitaph on Shakespeare". Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1, (Spring, 1988) p. 60. JSTOR Database