Monday, August 10, 2020


When Wasteful War Shall Statues Overturn

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 55:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,        5
And broils root out the work of masonry,
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,        10
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
    So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
    You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
A.L. Rowse, Shakespeare's Sonnets: A Modern Edition, with Prose Versions, Introduction and Notes, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 113:
Neither marble nor princes' gilded monuments shall outlive these verses: you shall shine more bright in them than unswept stone, dirty with decay. When wasteful war shall overturn statues and throw down buildings, neither sword nor fire shall destroy the living record of your memory. Against death and injurious oblivion shall you go forward: your praise shall still find place even in the eyes of posterity, until doomsday ends the world. So, till the day of judgment calls you to arise, you will live on in this and in the eyes of lovers.

All that one can say about this famous sonnet, this splendid incantation, is to notice the outburst of confidence in his verse on the part of the poet. Perhaps it came, naturally enough, along with the relief of his anxiety. Nor was he wrong: wars have come and gone, London been twice burnt down, yet Shakespeare's friend goes on immortally in his verse, as the poet assured him.
Colin Burrow, ed., William Shakespeare, The Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 490 (I added Ovid before Met.):
1–2 Not marble . . . rhyme Horace, Odes 3.30.1–9 and Ovid, Met. 15.871–9 are the chief precedents for this confident affirmation of the power of verse to immortalize. Golding 15.983–95: ‘Now have I brought a work to end which neither Jove’s fierce wrath, | Nor sword, nor fire, nor fretting age with all the force it hath | Are able to abolish quite. Let come that fatal hour | Which (saving of this brittle flesh) hath over me no power, | And at his pleasure make an end of mine uncertain time. | Yet shall the better part of me assurèd be to climb | Aloft above the starry sky. And all the world shall never | Be able for to quench my name. For look how far so ever | The Roman Empire by the right of conquest shall extend, | So far shall all folk read this work. And time without all end | (If poets as by prophecy about the truth may aim) | My life shall everlastingly be lengthened still by fame’. This poem differs from its predecessors in two respects: (a) The poet immortalizes not himself, as Horace and Ovid do, but the friend, whose literary afterlife gives him enough vitality to pace forth (l. 10); (b) Horace and Ovid both make the life of their verse coextensive with the sway of the Roman Empire in time and space; Shakespeare promises endurance in all lands (all posterity, l. 11) until Judgement Day (the ending doom, l. 12).This poem also notably fails to record any of the friend’s achievements or actions. It is the poem’s tenacity of remembrance rather than the deeds of the friend which is celebrated.

1 monuments ‘A monument is a thing erected, made or written, for a memorial of some remarkable action, fit to be transferred to future posterities. And thus generally taken, all religious Foundations, all sumptuous and magnificent structures, Cities, Towns, Towers, Castles, Pillars, Pyramids, Crosses, Obelisks, Amphitheatres, Statues and the like, as well as Tombs and Sepulchres, are called Monuments’, John Weever, Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631), 1.

2 pow’rful Q marks this as disyllabic by spelling it ‘powrefull’. ‘Power’ is usually monosyllabic and usually spelt ‘powre’ in Q. The only exception is 65.2, when ‘power’ rhymes with ‘flower’ in what may be a feminine rhyme.

3 contents ‘The sum or substance of what is contained in a document; tenor, purport’; hence ‘in the matter of these poems’ (OED 3a); here, as normally before the nineteenth century, accented ‘contènt’.

4 besmeared with sluttish time Most editors gloss ‘dirtied over by the filthy servant time’, in which sluttish is taken to mean ‘Of persons:Dirty and untidy in dress and habits’ (OED 1). ‘Besmeared with’, however, indicates that time is not the agent causing the dirt to spread on the monument, but that it is the substance with which it is besmeared (DuBellay’s poems on the Antiquitez de Rome frequently refer to the ‘poudreuse cendre’ (1.1), the dusty cinders, which obscure the lineaments of ancient Rome). Sluttish therefore probably means ‘Of things: Unclean, dirty, grimy; untidy’ (OED 2). Compare Lucrece ll. 945 and 1381.

6 broils tumults; esp. in Shakespeare civil war or internal disturbance
work of masonry stone structures which are the products of a stonemason’s labour

7 Mars his sword the sword of Mars, god of war
quick rapid; also, perhaps with a deliberate paradox, ‘alive’

8 record (stressed on the first syllable) is usually a written report in the Sonnets, as at 59.5 and 123.11.

9 all oblivious enmity ‘all hostilities which destroy records of antiquity’. Wars cause the decay of monuments and therefore bring about oblivion of the past. For the usage of oblivious to mean ‘bringing about oblivion’ see Macbeth 5.3.43–7: ‘Raze out the written troubles of the brain, | And with some sweet oblivious antidote | Cleanse the fraught bosom of that perilous stuff | Which weighs upon the heart’. Ingram and Redpath’s conjecture ‘oblivion’s enmity’ misses this idiosyncratic usage. Many editors hyphenate all-oblivious-enmity, which hardens the sense unnecessarily towards ‘hostility which destroys everything’, and excludes ‘all forms of hostility which generate oblivion’.

10 pace forth stride out with the measured confidence of a warrior
find room gain admittance

11 eyes of opinion of
posterity See 6.12 n.

12 ending doom apocalypse; end of the world

13 the judgement . . . arise the Last Judgement, in which you will be resurrected in your own body

14 this this poem

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