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.
A famous sonnet which rings changes on the theme celebrated by Horace –
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
(I have built a monument more lasting than bronze…)
but here given a new meaning in that it is the loved one who is immortalised, rather than the poet. The poet is himself only the instrument to accomplish this end and he humbly celebrates the glory of the youth.
Yet on a secondary level we do not read the poem in that way at all, for we are well aware that the words survive far longer than any memory of the youth, whose face and name we do not even know. The striking images of crumbling stone and violent war etch themselves into our minds and in the midst of this waste and decay we realise that if anything will survive it will be the poet’s words, and both he and the loved one will be swept away into oblivion. Immortality of sorts is thus achieved for the poem, but for nothing else unless it be for the love which dwells in lovers eyes.
The sonnet shares its theme with that of several others, 18, 19, 65, 81, 107, 123, which oppose the power of verse to death and Time’s cruel knife, and promise immortality to the beloved. Curiously enough, it does not seem to make any difference that the verse immortalises the youth without revealing him, for the very fact of immortality seems to confer anonymity. The concluding couplet seems to be entirely satisfying, and we do not need to press furhter enquiries on the poet and demand to know who it is to whom eternal life is given. It is enough that he lives in lovers’ eyes, for they comprehend all mysteries, and perhaps, on the last day, at the ending doom, we will know all the answers anyway, and realise that they were not all that important.
The 1609 Quarto Version
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 burn:
The liuing record of your memory.
Gainſt death,and all obliuious emnity
Shall you pace forth,your praiſe ſhall ſtil find 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.
1. Not marble, nor the gilded monumentsMarble was widely used in statuary and in monuments for tombs of the powerful and wealthy. The more extravagant ones were large enough to house the coffins of generations of the same family. Royal tombs would be richly ornate, as those for example in Westminster Abbey. (See illustration below left, and at bottom of page).
gilded monuments – Memorials in churches would often be decorated with gold leaf.2. Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;princes – a word which was used to refer to all royalty and rulers, male and female.
powerful – in the sense of being able to withstand time’s destruction, and perhaps to confer immortality.3. But you shall shine more bright in these contentsBut = in contrast to the things listed, you etc.
in these contents – in the content of this verse. SB points out that it could have a suggestion of ‘in this coffin’ as though the verse were a physical container, a capacious monument.4. Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.unswept stone – a stone monument left uncared for. Those in cathedrals and churches would generally be kept clean and polished. But older monuments in churchyards gradually would be forgotten and fall to ruin, as the living memory of its builders and inhabitants died out.
sluttish = of unclean habits and behaviour; lewd and whorish. The adjective was applied to both males and females. It is descriptive of time’s indifference to keeping the world orderly.5. When wasteful war shall statues overturn,wasteful war – war devastates city and country, hence the term to lay waste, from the Latin vastare.6. And broils root out the work of masonry,
broils = tumult, fighting, disturbances, esp. in war. As in :
Prosper this realm, keepe it from civil broils. 1H6.I.1.53.
The destruction caused by war, even in the days before high explosives, was often made evident when conquered towns were razed to the ground by the soldiery. All buildings (masonry) would be flattened. In the bible total destruction is foretold to Jerusalem by Christ:
For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall
cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep
thee in on every side, And shall lay thee even with the ground,and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another;because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation. Luke.19.43-4.7. Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burnNeither the sword of Mars (the God of war), nor the searching fire of war. quick = lively, fast moving, searching out.8. The living record of your memory.living record = the memory of you among those currently alive; the memory of you which continues after you are dead; the written record of your life.9. ‘Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity‘Gainst = against.
all oblivious enmity – enmity which seeks to destroy everything, or is forgetful of everything; time, the enemy. SB gives seven possible meanings of this phrase: entirely unmindful; every (all of the) unmindful; that is forgetful of all things; that causes forgetfulness; that causes forgetfulness of everything; that causes forgetfulness in everyone; that brings everything to oblivion, causes everything to be forgotten.10. Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find roomShall you pace forth = you shall stride forwards. The image is perhaps that of leading a procession, or of striding on to a stage.
your praise = praise of you, praise which is due to you.
still = constantly; for ever, despite all.
find room = be given time and space (whereas most things disappear or are lost with the passage of time).11. Even in the eyes of all posterityEven in the eyes of = in the very presence or sight of, in the opinion of.
all posterity = all future generations.12. That wear this world out to the ending doom.That – the antecedent is presumably all posterity, being the closest noun, whereas death and all-oblivious enmity of l.9 are rather remote. It depends partly on how one wishes to interpret the phrase wear this world out. The most obvious meaning is ‘to destroy gradually by attrition’, a meaning which does not sit entirely happily with posterity, but is more suggestive of time, or death, or war. On the other hand posterity could be taken to embrace the idea of the tedious progress of the generations bringing the world to the brink of exhaustion, recalling for example Macbeth’s despairing cry when confronted with Banquo’s descendants:
What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom! Mac.IV.1.117.
the ending doom = the last judgement. When the world comes to an end, according to Christian mythology, the fate (doom) of all humans who have ever lived is finally decided. Those who are to be saved sit on the right hand of God the Father. Those who are damned go to the left and are condemned to everlasting flames, the bottomless pit which was prepared for the devil and his angels.13. So, till the judgment that yourself arise,On the final day, the day of the last judgement, (see above), even those who died some time ago will arise from the dead and be judged. After that date there is no point in celebrating anyone in poetry.14. You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
in this – in this verse.
live, dwell – the repetition of words connected with ‘to live’ (outlive, living, oblivious, arise, dwell) counteracts the effect of death, war and destruction.
in lover’s eyes – a reminder that this is also a love poem, and a reminder of the power of love to transcend mortality. Perhaps a reference also to ‘seeing babies’ in the loved one’s eyes. See Sonnet 24.