SInce braſſe, nor ſtone, nor earth, nor boundleſſe ſea,
But ſad mortallity ore-ſwaies their power,
How with this rage ſhall beautie hold a plea,
Whoſe action is no ſtronger then a flower?
O how ſhall ſummers hunny breath hold out,
Againſt the wrackfull ſiedge of battring dayes,
When rocks impregnable are not ſo ſtoute,
Nor gates of ſteele ſo ſtrong but time decayes?
O fearfull meditation, where alack,
Shall times beſt Iewell from times cheſt lie hid?
Or what ſtrong hand can hold his ſwift foote back,
Or who his ſpoile or beautie can forbid? of
O none, vnleſſe this miracle haue might,
That in black inck my loue may ſtill ſhine bright.
Sonnet 65, like Sonnet 64, is indebted to the verses accompanying Whitney’s emblem, Scripta manent, and develops Sonnet 64’s theme that the state of anything, whether land or sea, is “confounded, to decay.” Its first lines are condensed: ‘since it is the case that brass, stone, earth and sea exist only so that sad mortality might over-sway their power.’ Their very existence is purposed to be overthrown; “brasse” evokes both Horace’s classical trope of a “monumentum aere perennius” (‘a monument more enduring than bronze;’ “aes” could be either bronze or brass) and Whitney’s “brasse,” that is “worne awaie” (see Sonnet 55 and 64 commentaries); “stone” is the marble in which memorials are set, while “earth” (Ovid’s “tellus”) and “boundlesse sea” (Ovid’s “aequor”) are interchanging states in Sonnet 64. 1 The mightier force is “sad mortallity,” a deadliness that brings only sorrow. To ‘hold sway over’ is to ‘have power over,’ although ‘sway’ is also the authority prevailing in a court of law. Normally it is fire and sea that act violently or with “rage,” but here it is their conqueror, “sad mortallity,” whose action is a “rage” (as a passion excessive sadness could also be a “rage”).
How, the poet asks, “shall beautie hold a plea”? Technically, ‘to hold a plea’ (tenere placitum = to hold a plea) was ‘to try an action’ or ‘to have jurisdiction’ in a court of law. On first reading the question asks, ‘how shall beauty sue or be heard in a court of law?’ But, if so, then “with this rage” must be read as ‘against this rage.’ A more complex reading is intended: ‘in a court, where the sway of mortality’s rage is so sovereign that any fair hearing or judgement is precluded, how can there be a place for beauty or its power?’ This is also the meaning of Whitney’s question, “what maye laste, which time dothe not impeache”? 2 The reason is the lack of strength in beauty’s “action,” the weakness of its legal suit, hinting also at a military action as the forthcoming siege metaphor. The fragility of the flower’s beauty before the breath of the Lord, whose word however was immortal, was a biblical trope: “the floure falleth away, for the breath of the Lord bloweth vpon them . . yet the worde of our God endureth for euer” (Isa. 40.7; BB).
The poet asks, how shall “summers hunny breath hold out”? With its origin in a flower and its lightness “hunny” suggests ‘sweet;’ “hold out” is ‘withstand,’ as a city does under siege, against which days ‘batter’ like blows of a battering ram; “wrackfull” is a siege ‘full of enmity’ or, as in ‘wrack and ruin,’ a siege ‘that lays ruin to.’ How can beauty hold out, when rocks, which like a fortress cannot normally be crushed (“impregnable”), aren’t mighty enough (“stout”) to counteract time, or, in Whitney’s phrase, “gates of steele” are not sufficiently strong to resist time’s action (“but time decayes”)? 3
The thoughts constitute a “meditation,” whose points induce only fear (“O fearfull meditation”), recalling the “ruminate” of Sonnet 64; “alack” is an expression of regret. The “best Iewell” of time is beauty, of which time is origin and owner: how can such a jewel be hid away or kept safe from the “chest” of time: the ‘coffin’ in which time shuts up such a treasure, or time’s ‘bosom’ to which it clutches and smothers beauty. (Jewels are normally kept safe in a casket or chest.) Time’s “strong hand” links with the ‘sway’ of line 2, but the image is one of reining in an uncontrolled horse: “hold his swift foote back.” 4
Finally, the poet asks, who can “forbid,” ‘restrain’ or legally ‘prohibit’ time’s “spoil” or ‘pillage’ of beauty (the quarto reads “or”). His conclusion is succinct: “O none,” yet he holds out an escape clause, “unless this miracle haue might:” unless this poem have the power to do so. Miracles by definition operate outside the laws of time and nature and Shakespeare is playing with a common etymological pun, “miracle” being the normal translation of the koiné’s δυναμις or “might.” The beloved (“my loue”), although secondarily the poet’s own love, will continue to “shine bright” in the “black inck” of his writing. Its darkness shining brightly runs counter to the order of nature.
65.1. Horace, Odes 3.30.1; Ovid, Met. 15.262-63.
65.2. Whitney 131.7.
65.3. Whitney 131.1, “gates of steele.”
65.4. Compare Sonnet 19.6, “swift-footed time.”