William Shakespeare, Sonnet
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
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
7 Mars his sword the sword of Mars, god of
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
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
13 the judgement . . . arise the Last Judgement, in which you will be resurrected in
your own body
14 this this poem