“But you shall shine more bright in these contents/Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.”

William Shakespeare – Sonnet #55

By Dennis Abrams

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Charles Robinson. “Not marble nor the gilded monuments.” Illustration for Sonnet 55. The Songs and Sonnets of William Shakespeare. London, 1915. Shelfmark PR2842 A26 Sh.Col.

SONNET 55

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
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
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.

How great is the line, “Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time?”

ANALYSIS

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments (1): This line is likely an allusion to the lavish tombs of English royalty; in particular, to the tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey, which contains a large sarcophagus made of black marble with gilded effigies of King Henry and his queen, Elizabeth of York.

unswept (4): note that the pronunciation here is /UN swept/.

with sluttish time (4): i.e., by filthy time.
In Elizabethan England the word “sluttish” could describe either a sexually promiscuous woman or a grubby, unkempt woman. Here Shakespeare personifies Time as the latter.

broils (7): angry, violent quarrels or riots.

all-oblivious enmity (9): i.e., the war and decay that would render the subject of the poem forgotten.

Sonnet 55 is one of Shakespeare’s most famous works and a notable deviation from other sonnets in which he appears insecure about his relationships and his own self-worth. Here we find an impassioned burst of confidence as the poet claims to have the power to keep his friend’s memory alive evermore. Some critics argue that Shakespeare’s sudden swell of pride in his poetry was strictly artificial – a blatant attempt to mimic the style of the classical poets.  It is difficult on any other hypothesis to reconcile the inflated egotism of such a one as 55 with the unassuming dedications to the Venus and Lucrece, 1593 and 1594, or with the expressions of humility found in the sonnets themselves, e.g. 32 and 38.  However, many believe that such an analysis ignores Shakespeare’s paramount desire to immortalize his friend in verse, and not himself (as was the motive of most classical poets). "The Romans say: Because of my poem I will never die. Shakespeare says: Because of my poem you will never die….What distinguishes Shakespeare is that he values the identity of the beloved; he recognizes that the beloved has his own personal immortality, in no way dependent on poetry" (Martin, 158). By focusing on the word ‘live’, Shakespeare uses the language itself to emphasize his authorial intentions. Notice the word choices of outlive,  living, ob ‘liv’ious (9), and live. Despite its tremendous popularity, Sonnet 55 has its detractors. One of the most interesting attacks on the sonnet came from a critic named H. T. S. Forrest, who despised the poem and, in particular, lines 10-14. These lines, he wrote, are ‘slovenly, far-fetched, and tautologous verses which would be mercilessly criticized if they appeared as the handiwork of the minutest of the minor poets of today. Why ‘even’? To talk of printed matter ‘finding room’ in people’s eyes is not a little ridiculous. In line 11 the poet’s verses are going to be looked upon by the whole of posterity, but in line 14 only by the ‘lovers’ section thereof. And line 13 is hopelessly ungrammatical, even if we accept Beeching’s explanation that ‘that’= ‘when’ (Forrest, 44).

Another angle:

According to multiple scholars, sonnet 55 is a poem about time and immortalization. The speaker claims that his beloved will wear out this world to the ending doom. According to Alison Scott, the speaker’s poem won’t last much compared to his beloved, even though his beloved is immortalised in the poem, adhering to a larger theme of giving and possessing that runs through many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. David Kaula, however, emphasizes the concept of time slightly differently. He argues that the sonnet traces the progression of time, from the physical endeavours built by man (monuments, statues, masonry), as well as the primeval notion of warfare depicted through the image of “Mars’ sword” and “war’s quick fire,” to the concept of the last judgment. The young man will survive all of these things through the verses of the speaker.

These monuments, statues, and masonry reference both Horace’s Odes and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lars Engle argues that echoing the ancients, as the speaker does when he says “not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;” further solidifies the speaker’s claim about the longevity of written word. However, while Horace and Ovid claim the immortality for themselves, the speaker in sonnet 55 bestows it on another. Engle also claims that this is not the first time Shakespeare references the self-aggrandizement of royals and rulers by saying that poetry will outlive them. He frequently mentions his own (political) unimportance, which could lead sonnet 55 to be read as a sort of revenge of the socially humble on their oppressors.

While the first quatrain is referential and full of imagery, in the second quatrain Ernest Fontana focuses on the epithet “sluttish time.” The Oxford English Dictionary gives “sluttish” two definitions: 1) dirty, careless, slovenly (which can refer to objects and persons of both sexes) and 2) lewd, morally loose, and whorish. According to Fontana, Shakespeare intended the second meaning, personifying and assigning gender to time, making the difference between the young man sonnets and the dark lady sonnets all the more obvious. Shakespeare had used the word “slut” nearly a year before he wrote sonnet 55 when he wrote Timon of Athens. In the play, Timon associates the word “slut” with “whore” and venereal disease. Associating “sluttish” with venereal disease makes Shakespeare’s use of the word “besmeared” more specific. Fontana states: “The effect of time, personified as a whore, on the hypothetical stone statue of the young man, is identified in metaphor with the effect of syphilis on the body—the statue will be besmeared, that is, covered, with metaphoric blains, lesions, and scars.” (Female) time destroys whereas the male voice of the sonnet is “generative and vivifying.”

Helen Vendler expands on the idea of “sluttish time” by examining how the speaker bestows grandeur on entities when they are connected to the beloved but mocks them and associates them with dirtiness when they’re connected with something the speaker hates. She begins by addressing the “grand marble” and “gilded” statues and monuments; these are called this way when the speaker compares them to the verse immortalizing the beloved. However, when compared to “sluttish time” they are “unswept stone besmeared.” The same technique occurs in the second quatrain. Battle occurs between mortal monuments of princes, conflict is crude and vulgar, “wasteful war” overturns unelaborated statues and “broils” root out masonry. Later in quatrain war becomes “war’s quick fire” and “broils” become “Mars his sword.” The war is suddenly grand and the foes are emboldened. The blatant contempt with which the speaker regards anything not having to do with the young man, or anything that works against the young man’s immortality, raises the adoration of the young man by contrast alone. Like the other critics, Vendler recognizes the theme of time in this sonnet. She expands on this by arguing that the sonnet revolves around the keyword “live.” In Q1, the focus is the word “outlive.” In Q2 it’s “living;” in Q3 “oblivious,” and the couplet focuses on the word “live” itself. However, this raises the question of whether the young man actually continues to live bodily or if only his memory remains. There are references to being alive physically with active phrases like “you shall shine in these contents” and “’gainst death and all oblivious enmity / shall you pace forth,” and also to living in memory: “the living record of your memory,” and “your praise shall…find room…in the eyes of all posterity.” Vendler argues that this question is answered by the couplet when it assigns “real” living to the day of the last judgment: “So till the judgment that your self arise / you live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.”

Interestingly, while researching the First Folios in the Folger Library, Robert Evans came across an epitaph for Shakespeare that was previously unrecorded. The epitaph appears in verse, similar to that of the sonnets, and shows just how highly Shakespeare’s contemporaries thought of his work. The lines of the epitaph themselves echo lines from sonnet 55, which bring into thought the ideas of that particular sonnet itself. Through the verses of the sonnet, the young man becomes immortal. Through the verses of the epitaph, as well as the larger context of praise for the dead poet, Shakespeare himself becomes immortal, echoing and reinforcing his very argument in sonnet 55.

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And finally, as requested, one last look at Richard III…from Freud’s 1916 essay, “Some Character-Types Met with in Psychoanalytic Work.”

“In the opening soliloquy to Shakespeare’s Richard III Gloucester, who subsequently becomes King, says:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Not made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I that am rudely stamp’d and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,

Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable,

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

*******

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain,

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

At a first glance this tirade may perhaps seem unrelated to our theme.  Richard seems to say nothing more than: ‘I find these idle times tedious, and I want to enjoy myself. As I cannot play the lover on account of my deformity, I will play the villain; I will intrigue, murder, and do anything else I please.’Such a frivolous motivation could not but stifle any stirring of sympathy in the audience, if it were not a screen for something much more serious.  Otherwise the play would be psychologically impossible, for the writer must know how to furnish us with a secret background of sympathy for his hero, if we are to admire his boldness and adroitness without inward protest; and such sympathy can only be based on understanding or on a sense of possible inner fellow-feeling for him.

I think, therefore, that Richard’s soliloquy does not say everything; it merely gives a hint, and leaves us to fill in what it hints at.  When we do so, however, the appearance of frivolity vanishes, the bitterness and minuteness with which Richard has depicted his deformity make their full effect, and we clearly perceive the fellow-feeling which compels our sympathy even with a villain like him.  What the soliloquy thus means is: “Nature has done me a grievous wrong in denying me the beauty of form which wins human love.  Life owed me a reparation for this, and I will see that I get it.  I have a right to be an exception, to disregard the scruples by which others let themselves be held back.  I may do wrong myself, since wrong has been done to me.’  And now we feel that we ourselves might become like Richard, that on a small scale, indeed, we are already like him.  Richard is an enormous magnification of something we find in ourselves as well.  We all think we have reason to reproach Nature and our destiny for congenital and infantile disadvantages; we all demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism, our self-love.  Why did not Nature give us the golden curls of Balder or the strength of Siegfried or the lofty brow of genius or the noble profile of aristocracy?  Why were we born in a middle-class home instead of in a royal palace?  We could carry off beauty and distinction as well as any of those whom we are now obliged to envy for these qualities.

It is, however, a subtle economy of art in the poet that he does not permit his hero to give open and complete expression to all his secret motives.  By this means he obliges us to supplement them; he engages our intellectual activity, diverts it from critical reflection and keeps us firmly identified with his hero.  A bungler in his place would give conscious expression to all that he wishes to reveal to us, and would then find himself confronted by our cool, untrammeled intelligence, which would preclude any deepening of the illusion.”

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My next post:Tuesday night, an introduction to our next play, and a break from historical drama, The Comedy of Errors.

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13 Responses to “But you shall shine more bright in these contents/Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.”

  1. Eddie Chism says:

    Dennis, sadly, I have fallen a bit behind. I just finished Act IV of Richard III tonight and hope to get to Act V in the next few days…

  2. Chris says:

    Dennis, thank you for posting the excerpt from Freud’s essay. Very illuminating. I can’t ever decide if we are so fascinated by villians because they are so alien to us or because they are not.
    It’s off to the library today. I usually rely on a re-sale shop for copies of the plays, but made the mistake of relying on my memory and brought home, “All’s Well That Ends Well” instead of “Comedy of Errors.” Oops.

  3. Chris says:

    By the way, my husband taped “Looking for Richard” for me – Al Pacino’s documentary about the process of mounting a production of the play. All I can say is, “Oy vey.”

    • I just re-watched that a couple of weeks ago. And while I agree with your “oy vey” (I assume that was in regards to Pacino’s performance as Richard), I admit that I enjoyed the rest of the film — I thought Winona Ryder was a touching Lady Anne, and I also appreciated the work done by Alec Baldwin, Penelope Allen, and Estelle Parsons.

  4. Chris says:

    Penelope Allen and Kevin Conway were real standouts, but aside from their performances, I thought it was an indulgent mess.

  5. dinotrader says:

    Even then in 1600, the gracefull columns of the Parthenon lay in ruins, the grand monuments had crumbled, the Colesium was in shambles. Men carve stone in order to build something lasting, to show forever the mark that they trod the earth. Yet many things destroy what man has built: the weathering of time, the ravages of war, even plants destroy stone, as we can see where a tree grows beside a stone path, “broils root out the work of masonry”.

    Shakespeare lived at the height of the Renaissance, after the printing press had come into common use, and after the scholars fled Constantinople bringing with them the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans. What was new, and inspired the Renaissance, was that the IDEAS of the ancients were rediscovered, and thus the beauty, the logic, the science, and the images of that time trancended their mysterious stones.

    This sonnet is an expression of that very idea. That as long as man can read the written word and perceive the beauty of a great love, that love shall survive far beyond any mere stone.

  6. Eddie C. says:

    I find it kind of interesting to contemplate the idea of someone’s love being “immortalized” in a poem like this one. The first thing I think about is that Shakespeare seems confident that his verse will last for ages to come. Well, of course, he was great and it seems a no-brainer (we’re talking about Shakespeare here!), but even great works could be lost if they did not remain in publication, etc. But just putting aside the fact that he is indeed a brilliant writer and had every reason to be confident that his work would last, it seems pretty arrogant to write a poem praising someone’s greatness by saying basically, “Hey babe, you will be immortalized because this poem is about you and it will last forever because it’s great art.” Then again, he’s SHAKESPEARE, so why not?

    The second thing that comes to my mind with this type of poem is the question of whether is it true that the subject of the poem is not forgotten? I mean it would be pretty awesome to inspire a great work of literature that people are still reading hundreds of years later, but in what way does a poem like this really tell us anything about the actual person being immortalized (assuming there is one actual person, rather than a hypothetical addressee)? I mean, I understand that’s not really what the poem’s about – it’s actually about the idea of beauty transcending the ruin of time, rather than about the particulars of the actual person that inspired it.

    I don’t want people to think I’m just completely missing the point – I get that I’m going off on a tangent that is not really relevant to appreciating this sonnet. I just think it’s interesting when you have a work of art which claims to immortalize its subject while giving you almost no description of that person! The work lives on and is great, but the person about whom it is written is completely forgotten, so he or she is “immortalized” anonymously.

    • A couple of things: It’s not altogether certain what the circumstances were regarding Shakespeare and his sonnets. Did he write them intending them for publication? Probably not. Were they actually autobiographical and personal or were they merely writing “exercises?” And if they were being directed to one person (as I suspect they were) — would you necessarily need to describe the person you were writing the poem for? Now that you’ve brought all this up (for which I do thank you, Eddie), I’ll try and get into more of this with the next sonnet post.

      Dennis

      • Eddie C. says:

        No, you wouldn’t need to describe them if they were only meant to be read by that person and were not published, but then the poem wouldn’t outlast the destructive powers of time and keep them alive after stone monuments crumble, etc. I mean, there’s at least a conceit that the poem is going to be read in future times and the person’s memory kept alive in that manner, even if it was not meant literally?

      • Perhaps it’s more the “idea” that the poem will last, whether or not it’s been published. Keep in mind, that when Shakespeare was writing, the idea of art for art’s sake, that art would last, was not quite as accepted. The plays were, obviously, written for money with no real belief that posterity would value them. The poems? I’m honestly not sure.

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