One of Shakespeare’s most powerful sonnets boldly asserts that its lines shall conquer death and time, outlasting not only the Young Man and the Poet himself, but even marble monuments, wars, or the besmearing of time.
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 lover’s eyes.
Ostensibly this poem was written to the Young Man, but it’s really about the enduring power of the written word, the most indelible form of Art–resistant to the ravages of war and the slow degradation of ‘sluttish’ time (the Elizabethan use of the word sluttish meaning messy or untidy).
So many great details and contrasts in this sonnet: how wars broil out the work of masonry, and how that power is godlike in its ferocity and speed (Mars’ sword); how gilded monuments and princes can’t outlive rhymes. It’s all kind of crazy, but, as it turns out, utterly true.: Did this verse conquer death and time? For four hundred years it has.
Of course, there are untold amounts of literature, written history and poetry that have been lost to the ages. Despite that, the Poet makes this bold prediction about his own verse. Could Shakespeare somehow had an inkling at how great his rhymes were? Did he imagine that succeeding generations would labor to reproduce these lines many countless of times, thereby insuring them against loss? I think he believed the possibility existed. And thus he worked very hard to make his sonnets gorgeous, multifaceted and full of great truths.
The image is of Scotney Castle, much of it Elizabethan, part of it in ruins. It’s now run by the National Trust.