I’m spending this week surrounded by books and students in various stages of panic. Exam season is in full swing, and I’m aware of few people who feel truly prepared for it. However, I’m choosing to approach my literature exams with a calm face and my interest in reading at the forefront of my mind. From experience, I’ve come to realise that this is a well-founded decision: it eliminates unnecessary stress, and reminds me why I really am choosing to put myself through long, dull hours in quiet rooms. As far as it is possible, I’m making the revision process enjoyable.
As a part of this, I have been reflecting on what the texts I’m studying mean to me, rather than one hundred other critics. I’ve most enjoyed studying and thinking about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, which is what I’ll discuss in this post. If you’re unfamiliar with the poem, have a skim over this. Below I’ll briefly discuss it, and outline my thoughts.
Sonnet 55 – William Shakespeare
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these conténts
Than unswept stone, besmeared 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.
In this relatively popular sonnet, Shakespeare boasts about the longevity of his verse, something that I would not attempt to argue with even in my most critical of moments. However, as Don Paterson mentions in his lovely “New Commentary”
on Shakespeare’s Sonnets
, Shakespeare has effectively failed to do what he’s aiming for. His poems have survived, and their legacy in modern culture will not diminish any time soon, yet we cannot conjure the idealised “Young Man” of the Sonnets
immediately to our mind. His image does not exactly “live in this”: critics do not have an accurate recreation of his image, or even know his true identity.
Yet I agree with Don Paterson that Shakespeare is doing something else in this sonnet. I will make a judgement here that you may dispute, and you can of course give your interpretation in the comment box. To me, Shakespeare is saying the following: even when everything material is destroyed, when buildings have fallen and war has burned through cities, I will still remember this “pow’rful rhyme”, and it will perhaps mean more to me, or “shine more bright”, because of the external destruction.
In an old post I wrote on memorising poetry
, I wrote about my first university English lecture, in which I was told – alongside a theatre of undergraduates that were either shaking or hungover – that memorising poetry was one of the best things you could do in your youth. Memorised poems can stay with you when everything else has gone, and, in the words of my lecturer, they will even get you through a prison sentence. Studies also show that a significant number of late stage dementia patients remember words and lines from poetry they learned in childhood.
Although in a more eloquent way, I think this is what Shakespeare is suggesting in Sonnet 55. Humans are skilled at destroying everything beautiful around us, especially with “war’s quick fire, but the human mind can vividly immortalise, recreate and remember. Note that in the second line Shakespeare uses “rhyme” rather than “verse”. Perhaps this is because rhyme is one best ways to commit something to memory: we learn through musicality, euphony and links.
Think of the poems that you can recall from memory: are there any? If not, consider finding some lines to commit to memory, ideally from a poem that really resounds with your experience, desires and character. It may come in more useful than you imagine.
|The eternal qualities of the written word: it won’t be leaving us soon. My White’s Books Ltd edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.