Not only is Shakespeare the English language’s greatest playwright, but one of its greatest lyric poets. Some of the sonnets he wrote contain lines as well known as any in the plays. One of the perennial themes of Western literature–the brevity of life–is given poignantly personal and highly original expression in many of these poems. In the first sonnet he compares the aging process to the onset of winter, to the fading of daylight and to the dying down of a fire so powerfully that one is surprised at the conclusion to realize that this is after all a love poem, expressing in a fresh way the old theme of tempus fugit (“time flies”), to tell his beloved that love can be more intense when one realizes that it is doomed to be brief. The second theme takes up another classic theme,ars longa, vita brevis (“art last long, though life is short”) in a way that shows Shakespeare was confident of his own greatness. He clearly believed his poetry would last, and used that fact as an argument for love. In the final lines he states, as a Christian, that the lover will live again on Judgment Day, but between this day and the end of the world, will live on through the poem. Shakespeare evidently addressed these poems to a young man, but they have been used to express the longings of lovers of all kinds.
Sonnet 55 maintains that the beloved will be remembered because of this poem, but what does the sonnet actually tell us about the lover?
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake aganst the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, (1) where late the sweet birds sang
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
William Shakespeare: Sonnet 55
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; (2)
but you shall shine more bright in these contents (3)
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils (4) root out the work of masonry,
Nor (5) Mars his (6) 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 if the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out (7) to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
(1) The empty tree branches are compared to choir stalls, or benches. where late the sweet birds sang.
(3) The contents of these poems written about you.
(4) Fights, disturbances.
(6) Mars’ (the god of war).
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Department of English
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