Sonnet 55

Shakespeare Sonnet 55

NOt marble, nor the guilded monument,
Of Princes ſhall out-liue this powrefull rime,
But you ſhall ſhine more bright in theſe contents
Then vnſwept ſtone, beſmeer’d with ſluttiſh time.
When waſtefull warre ſhall Statues ouer-turne,
And broiles roote out the worke of maſonry,
Nor Mars his ſword, nor warres quick fire ſhall burne:
The liuing record of your memory.
Gainſt death, and all obliuious emnity                                                enmity
Shall you pace forth, your praiſe ſhall ſtil finde roome,
Euen in the eyes of all poſterity
That weare this world out to the ending doome.
So til the iudgement that your ſelfe ariſe,
You liue in this, and dwell in louers eies.

Sonnet 55 is the first of the sonnets (Sonnets 55, 60 and 63-65) explicitly concerned with the fragility of poetry and beauty and their ability to withstand the ravages of time. Each draws on classical loci, Ovid and Horace in particular, sometimes directly, sometimes mediated through Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses (15.871-9) or the mottoes Whitney attaches to his emblems, specifically, Intestinae Simultates, (“Ciuill Broyles” in Shakespeare’s translation at 1H6 1.1.53), Pennae gloria perennis, (‘The everlasting glory of the pen’) and Scripta manent (‘Writings remain’). 1

The Horatian passage is found in his Odes, 3.30.1-9:

I have built a monument more enduring than bronze and higher than the pyramids’ regal structure, that neither the biting rain nor the strong north wind can destroy, nor even the numberless passing of the years, nor the flight of ages. I shall not completely die and a large part of me will cheat the goddess of death. Even as the High Priest with the silent Vestal virgin ascends the Capitol, I will shine forth, by praise made new, for all posterity. 2

The Ovidian passage comprises the final words to the Metamorphoses:

I have now brought to completion a work which neither Jove’s anger, nor fire, nor the sword, nor the maw of ages can destroy. When that day arrives, to which is due nothing but this body, let it bring to an end the uncertain time allotted to me. I will be carried with the everlasting better part of me above the high stars and my name will be a name incapable of destruction; and wherever Roman power shows itself to lands it has vanquished, I will be read in the mouths of men; and, if the prophecies of poets contain any truth, through all centuries I will live by fame. 3

Golding’s rendering of the piece was, in Shakespeare’s day, the standard one,

Now have I brought a woork to end which neither Joves feerce wrath,
Nor swoord, nor fyre, or freating age with all the force it hath
Are able to abolish quyght. Let comme that fatall howre
Which (saving of this brittle flesh) hath over mee no powre,
And at his pleasure make an end of myne uncerteyne tyme.
Yit shall the better part of mee assured bee to clyme
Aloft above the starrye skye. And all the world shall never
Be able for to quench my name. For looke how farre so ever
The Romane Empyre by the ryght of conquest shall extend,
So farre shall all folke reade this woork. And tyme without all end
(If Poets as by prophesie about the truth may ame)
My lyfe shall everlastingly bee lengthened still by fame. 4

Whitney’s emblems provide another, filtered source of the topos. Pertinently associated with their mottoes are the marginalia, in which Whitney provides classical precedents for the verses. In the case of Scripta manent, these cite Vergil, On the Death of Maecenas, 37-8, ‘the writings of Homer are more powerful than marble monuments: they live by genius, all others are of death.’ 5 The lines, in fact not by Vergil and hence not in modern editions, were thought in the 16th century to be by him and are contained in early editions. Maecenas was a friend of Augustus and patron of Vergil and Ovid. His name became a byword for both literary patronage and homosexual love. (The elegy describes him as “praecinctus,” which the 16th century commentary glosses, ‘it shows Maecenas to have been of a tender and effeminate body’ (“Ostendit Mecaenatem molli, ac effeminato fuisse corpore”) and condemns his evil acts (“molicie”). His effeminacy was recorded by Seneca who calls him ‘discinctus” or effeminate, while Holland in his translation of Suetonius’ Caesars says he was “wont in trimming and tricking up himselfe to be somewhat womannish.”) 6 The classical precedents, with which Whitney provides his mottoes and which celebrate the power of writing to conquer time, give an intimate subtext to these sonnets of Shakespeare. The parallels between Whitney’s Scripta manent and Shakespeare’s working of the trope – verses to a young man and a love that will outlast time – allow them to accrue to themselves the same classical referents. They thus implicitly acknowledge the friend as a patron and celebrate their love prevailing against time after the manner of Vergil and Maecenas. 7

Sonnet 55 opens with an inverted assertion: “Not . . nor;” “marble” was renowned from antiquity for its hardness and durability, while a “guilded monument” is one covered with a thin plating of gold, although “guilded” meaning ‘smeared,’ will be taken up later in “besmeer’d.” The opening echoes the verses to Whitney’s Scripta manent:

Since that wee see, theise monumentes are gone:
Nothinge at all, but time doth ouer reache,
It eates the steele, and weares the marble stone:
But writinges laste. (131.8-11)

The poet claims that his “powrefull rime” will “out-liue” attempts at monumental immortality, since the beloved will be blazoned in these “contents,” either this ‘rhyme’ or in this ‘book of rhymes.’ He will be preserved more brightly than in “vnswept stone” (an ‘in’ is required before “vnswept”), a stone that has not been attended to or cleansed, inset in a church floor as a memorial stone, which feet tread on and make dirty; “besmeer’d” suggests ‘besmirched,’ even ‘greasy,’ while “sluttish time” casts time as a greasy and dissolute servant or, since “besmeer’d” was used when cosmetic oils and unguents were excessively applied by a ‘slut’ (and by Seneca of Maecenas [“delibutus”]), time is cast in a whorish role. The “with” adds to the line’s complexity: ‘stone covered over with sluttish time (not gold)’ or ‘stone dirtied by sluttish time’ (compare Cor. 2.3.115, “The Dust on antique Time would lye vnswept”).

The second quatrain again echoes verses accompanying one of Whitney’s emblems, Intestinae Simultates:

When ciuill sworde is drawn out of the sheathe,
And bluddie broiles, at home are set a broache,
Then furious Mars with sworde doth rage beneathe,
And to the Toppe, deuowring flames incroache (7.1-4)

The sonnet’s “wastefull warre” is both war that ‘lays waste’ and is ‘full of waste,’ in the process overturning the memorial statues of princes; “broiles” are civil wars (Whitney’s “at home”), not wars with foreign powers. Such internal conflicts will “roote out the worke of masonry,” monuments or edifices built by masons; “roote out” keeps its etymological sense of ‘tear away the foundations of’ (e + radicare = to root out) and was used of both monuments and kingdoms, as in Jeremiah’s mandate to rail “against a kingdome to plucke it vp, and to roote it out and to destroy it” (18.7; GV).

“Nor Mars his sword, nor warres quick fire shall burne” is dense and zeugmatic, because a sword doesn’t customarily burn. “Mars his sword” is an archaic genitive, ‘the sword of Mars.’ Both sword and fire are found in Whitney’s motto. The “quick fire” of war intends both ‘war that spreads quickly as fire’ as well as ‘the quickly spreading flames that mark war.’ The sense of ‘lively’ in “quick,” something not normally associated with war, anticipates the next line’s “liuing record of your memory.” The poet’s “rime” will remain, a living document incorporating the friend’s memory as it has in the past and will continue to do, as in Whitney’s prayer for Sir Philip Sidney, “Wherefore, proceede I praye, vnto your lasting fame; / For writinges last when wee bee gonne, and doe preserue our name.” 8

The sestet begins with a further inversion which adds emphasis to the poet’s voice with each of the first four syllables of the next line being equally weighted: “Sháll yóu páce fórth.” He will stride out to battle death and all “obliuious enmity,” either ‘enmity that totally disregards,’ ‘enmity that forgets all,’ or ‘enmity that causes all to be forgotten;’ this last is the normal meaning of ‘enmity’ as in Isaiah’s words, “the enmyte of Iuda shalbe cleane rooted out” (11.13; BB). The praise that the poet ascribes to the young man (“your praise”) will nevertheless continue to “finde roome, / Euen in the eyes of all posterity.” The line is Shakespeare’s rendering of Horace’s line above, “usque ego postera crescam laude recens” (‘I will shine forth, by praise made new, for all posterity’). The use of “roome” continues the earlier concern with “contents” and alludes to the camera or “roome,” which is the space in the mind containing the image received from the eye’s lens (see Sonnet 24). Praise of the youth will be remembered as a memory-image in the eyes of all readers (“posterity”), who will wear time out reading the poem until the judgement day that ends time (“ending doome”). The tables are thus turned on time’s power to “weare out.” 9 The couplet concludes: ‘until the final day of judgement, which will summon the youth to rise again from the grave, he will live in “this” sonnet, because successive generations of readers will also be lovers and able to behold the youth embodied in the sonnet, since he will “dwell in louers eies.” A like thought concludes Whitney’s emblem, “Then fauour them that learne within their youthe: / But loue them beste, that learne, and write the truthe.” 10


55.1. Whitney 7, 196-7, 131.

55.2. Horace, Odes 3.30.1-9:

Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
uitabit Libitinam; usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita uirgine pontifex.

55.3. Ovid, Met. 15.871-9:

Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis
nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.
cum volet, illa dies, quae nil nisi corporis huius
ius habet, incerti spatium mihi finiat aevi:
parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis
astra ferar, nomenque erit indelebile nostrum,
quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terris,
ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.

55.4. Golding 15. 983-95.

55.5. Vergil, In Maecenatis obitu 37-8, “Mormora Maeonii vincunt monumenta libelli: Vivuntur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt.”

55.6. Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium 114.4; Suetonius, The Historie of Tvvelve Cæsars Emperours of Rome: Written in Latine by C. Suetonius Tranquillus, and newly translated into English, by Philemon Holland (London: Humphrey Lownes and G. Snowdon, 1606). Annotations (on Octavius Caesar Augustus) 18.

55.7. Acknowledging patrons as Maecenas was frequent in dedicatory epistles, epicedes and the public writing of Shakespeare’s England. His name was especially invoked when addressing royalty and nobility, but was also common among literary hacks. In 1607 William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, and his brother are addressed as “bountifull MECAENATES” by Richard Carew in his “Epistle Dedicatorie” to his translation of Henri Estienne’s A World of Wonders (Carew ¶3r), while the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, in a book of epitaphs on his death in 1624 is identified with Maecenas and poets are instructed to follow Vergil’s example and “peruse / His Globe or Worth, and eke his Vertues braue / Like learned Maroes at Mecenas graue” (Jones 28). Francis Bacon is addressed as “Magnificentissimo literarum ac literatorum Maecaenati” in a sermon entitled, The Arriereban, and preached in 1610 by John Everard and John Florio is asked to act as a Maecenas to an Augustus (“as his Mecenas you would write to Augustus”) at the outset of John Healey’s translation of Epictetus (John Everard, The Arriereban (London: E[dward] G[riffin], 1618) A2r; Healey, Epictetus (1610) A3r).

55.8. Whitney, Pennae gloria perennis 196-97, 37-38.

55.9. See Whitney, Scripta manent 131.2, “Bee worne awaie, with tracte of stealinge time,” & 10, “weares.”

55.10. Whitney, Scripta manent 131.23-4.