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Sonnet 65

It is said that the only unchanging constant is Time itself. No matter what humans try to do, they can't prevent the relentless march of Time or the devastation it brings to living things. Even strong, durable objects like towers, mountains, buildings, and the earth itself are unable to escape Time and change. In "Sonnet 65" (1609), William Shakespeare (1564-1616) explores how things as delicate as love and beauty might withstand, or outlast, Time. 

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It is said that the only unchanging constant is Time itself. No matter what humans try to do, they can't prevent the relentless march of Time or the devastation it brings to living things. Even strong, durable objects like towers, mountains, buildings, and the earth itself are unable to escape Time and change. In "Sonnet 65" (1609), William Shakespeare (1564-1616) explores how things as delicate as love and beauty might withstand, or outlast, Time.

Sonnet is Italian for "little song."

"Sonnet 65" At a Glance

"Sonnet 65" is a poem written by William Shakespeare that explores the theme of time and its impact on human existence.

William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 65": Summary

Author

William Shakespeare

Publication

1609, in a quarto entitled Shake-speare's Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted

Form

Shakespearean or English sonnet

Meter

Iambic Pentameter

Rhyme Scheme

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

Poetic Devices

Personification, Simile, Metaphor, Symbolism, Alliteration

Frequently noted imagery

Brass, stone, earth, and boundless sea, A fragile flower. Summer’s honey breath, Wrackful siege of batt’ring days. Decaying gates of steel, Time’s best jewel. Black ink, Love shines bright.

Tone

Mournful and desperate, shifts to hopeful in the final couplet

Themes

The relentless passage of time, the fragility of beauty, and the power of the written word

Analysis

The poem explores the idea that there is nothing that can stop Time from destroying beauty as even the hardest substances decay, but beauty can be immortalized in the written word and outstand the test of Time.

"Sonnet 65" Poem

As part of the Fairy Youth sequence, the poem explores how time can erode even the most beautiful and lasting things in life.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,But sad mortality o’ersways their power,How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,When rocks impregnable are not so stout,Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where alack,Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back,Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?

O none, unless this miracle have might,

That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

"Sonnet 65" Meaning

In the sonnet, Shakespeare reflects on the destructive power of time, acknowledging that even the most beautiful and well-crafted things in the world are eventually eroded by it. He compares the power of time to the beauty of the young person, who is the subject of the poem.

All-powerful, unstoppable, and merciless, Time is a tricky adversary. Even the hardest metals on earth eventually erode and degrade, giving way to nothing. And human lives, which are infinitely more fragile than steel and stone, are no exception to the ravages of Time.

Time plays an important role in maintaining the balance of nature. But because humans are self-aware, they fear Time in a way that other natural things don't. Humans do not want to grow old, they don't want to die, and they absolutely don't want to be forgotten. The primary conflict in the poem is how the speaker and his lover can avoid being lost to Time. The meaning of the poem is that although nothing can stop time from destroying physical beauty, beauty can be immortalized emotionally in the written word and outlast the test of Time.

"Sonnet 65" Structure Summary

In summary, "Sonnet 65" is composed of 3 quatrains and a rhyming couplet.

The first quatrain asks how something as fragile as beauty can withstand Time when strong, durable forces like brass, stone, earth, and the sea are powerless against it. The speaker says Time degrades even rocks and steel, and the beauty of the Fair Youth will inevitably fare worse against the endless, "batt’ring" days (6). The speaker then poses a series of questions, wondering where he could hide his lover from Time, what could stop Time from marching forward, and who could prevent Time from destroying beauty.

In the end, the speaker realizes that there is nothing that can save his lover physically, but his lover's beauty might miraculously endure in the speaker's writings.

Although the "Fair Youth" isn't directly addressed in "Sonnet 65," it is his beauty that the speaker wants to preserve from Time.

The vast majority of Shakespeare's sonnets, Sonnets 1-126, address an unnamed man referred to as the Fair Youth. The speaker has an intimate relationship with the Fair Youth, at first beseeching him to have children so his legacy will live on and later documenting the two men's developing relationship.

Some scholars have argued that the relationship is homoerotic in nature given the affection and intimacy between the two men. Others claim that a homosexual reading of the sonnets is too contemporary given that Shakespeare's society seemed unfazed by the men's relationship.

Either way, the Fair Youth is the character being memorialized in "Sonnet 65." This sonnet touches on themes of permanence while focusing primarily on the passage of time and the fragility of beauty.

Sonnet 65, Immortalising love in ink, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The speaker says his lover might be immortalized in the ink of his poetry.

Literary Devices in "Sonnet 65"

The central literary devices in "Sonnet 65" are personification, simile, metaphor, and rhetorical questions.

Personification in "Sonnet 65"

The speaker uses personification to position Time as the primary antagonist and source of conflict in the poem. Time is "batt'ring" (line 6), can "spoil" (line 12) and "decays" (line 8) some of the strongest materials on earth (in Shakespeare's time, at least). Personifying Time gives it the physical strength to destroy tangible things and actively work against the speaker and his beloved. The speaker worries about how he could protect his beloved from Time when Time is so merciless and unrelenting:

O fearful meditation! where, alack,

Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?

Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?

Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?" (9-12)

Time is presented as though it is a conquering army and humans are its spoils of war. Time wants all of the best jewels kept locked in its chest (read: death). Nothing can keep it from marching forward and conquering more and more, leaving death in its wake. And Time wants to completely destroy beauty and cement its ultimate control over humankind. Time has a will and agency. It is free to claim whatever it wants whenever it wants to.

In the final couplet, the speaker reclaims the power of personification and uses it to his advantage. He says,

...this miracle have might,

That in black ink my love may still shine bright." (13-14)

The speaker hopes that his writing might be the only force mighty enough to stand against Time. Because the written word can be republished over and over again, infinitely as long as there are people to print it, it can preserve the speaker and his beloved for years after Time has claimed them both (judging by the fact that we're discussing this poem 400 years after Shakespeare originally wrote it, he was probably correct). He says that love shines out of the ink, illuminating the beauty of the men for all to witness.

Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

Technology has advanced immensely in the 4 centuries since Shakespeare originally penned this sonnet. Is there any other way that modern people capture the beauty of those who have been physically taken by time? How does that method compare to poetry?

Simile in "Sonnet 65"

The speaker uses a simile to compare the Fair Youth's beauty and fragility to a flower's. The speaker uses the word "than" to directly show how both lack the strength to stand up against Time. He says,

"How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,Whose action is no stronger than a flower? (lines 3-4)

This simile is effective because the physical features associated with beauty are directly influenced by Time. Flowers wilt and die within a season, their beautiful petals giving way before finally succumbing to death. So too do humans change physically (wrinkles, sagging skin) as their bodies age and eventually transpire. The Fair Youth and flowers are charming and attractive, but their beauty is weak against Time. As stronger materials can't overcome the destruction of time, beauty stands no chance.

Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like, as, or than

Sonnet 65, poppy flower StudySmarterFig. 2 - The speaker compares the Fair Youth's beauty and fragility to that of a flower.

Metaphor and Symbolism in "Sonnet 65"

The speaker uses metaphor to further compare youth's beauty to natural imagery. In line 5, he refers to the Fair Youth's beauty as "summer’s honey breath." This hints at the youth's sweetness, vibrancy, and impermanence.

Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as

Youth is symbolized by the sun and summertime in countless poems. In the summertime, things are lively and growing. The sun, the ultimate source of light and life, makes plants grow as animals born in the spring reach the peak of their adolescence. Everything is full of life and vitality. Although summer is symbolic of life and power, it ultimately fades away into Autumn and decay.

Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea

The use of "honey breath" depicts youth as sweet and rich. But honey itself comes with connotations of fragility and impermanence. Honeybees have incredibly short lifespans of only a few months, and honeycombs themselves are fragile. Honey is largely associated with summer because its production is linked to the lifecycles of flowers and pollen.

If summer is a symbol of youth and honey is a symbol of sweetness and productivity, then winter is ultimately a devastation that youth and beauty will not be able to survive.

Sonnet 65, Honey, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The speaker uses the phrase "summer’s honey breath" (5) to show how sweet, rich, and impermanent the Fair Youth's beauty is

The speaker also uses metaphor when he calls the Fair Youth "Time’s best jewel" (10). The man is beautiful and valuable like a precious jewel, and Time would like to keep him hidden in death forever. The metaphor presents Time as a kind of hoarder, keeping the world's beauty hidden in his chest of jewels for only Time itself to enjoy.

Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.

Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as

"Sonnet 65" Alliteration

The first quatrain in "Sonnet 65" repeats the hard "B" sound, emulating the heavy blows that Time delivers. Words like "brass," "boundless," "but," and "beauty" (lines 1-4) imitate the sound of something being beaten and add an aggressive rhythm to the introductory quatrain. This emphasizes the way Time brutally deteriorates everything, from rocks to solid steel.

In the second quatrain, the forceful "B" sound continues with words like "breath," "batt'ring," and "but" (lines 5-8). The alliterative soft "S" sound is also added, softening the effects and showing that decay can also happen gradually over time.

Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words

Shakespeare employs several literary devices throughout the poem to establish a mournful, desperate tone. The speaker compares beauty to a flower and the beloved's "honey breath" to summer itself, because, although nature is a cycle, it is also fragile. The same flower will never bloom again. He ultimately argues that Time can cast its own shadow on gates of iron and rocks, but it can't penetrate the strength of the written word.

"Sonnet 65" Themes

The central themes of "Sonnet 65" are the relentless passage of time, the fragility of beauty, and the power of the written word.

The Relentless Passage of Time

"Sonnet 65" is dominated by Time. Time is relentless, merciless, and all-powerful. It is presented as the antagonist of the poem, a brutal enemy who brings with it "the wrackful siege of batt’ring days" (6). But really it is time that ensures that the cycle of the seasons, and of life, continues. Time keeps everything balanced, from summer to winter and life to death. The importance of time is only hinted at through the seasons and the elements, but it is implied that time's constant passage is actually quite natural. The speaker's hope that time would stop for humans is actually an unnatural request.

Sonnet 65, Hourglass, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Time's relentless passage is one of the central themes in the poem.

The Fragility of Beauty

Perhaps just as important of the passage of time is the idea that beauty is special and should be preserved. The speaker actually focuses his argument on the immortalization of beauty as opposed to the beloved himself. Why? Because to the speaker, beauty isn't just physical appearance. It's the essence of the person themselves, everything that makes his beloved special. The lover's physical beauty is fragile, yes, but because of his mortality, everything else amazing about him will eventually be wiped off the earth as well.

Perhaps beautiful things are more beautiful because of their impermanence and not in spite of it. If sunsets occurred every hour of every day, their appeal would probably wane. If flowers bloomed throughout all four seasons, humans might not be so excited to see the first buds in the spring. So one could argue that the lover is so beautiful because he is so fragile, and once he's gone no one will ever be able to replicate his unique beauty. In an effort to preserve that beauty or rather all of the things that the speaker loves, he extolls his beloved's virtues in poetry.

The power of the written word

Finally, the poem ends by contemplating the power of the written word. If there's one way to immortalize something, it is by giving it a legacy. In the 1600s, before there were cameras or smartphones, the only way to really do that was either through painting or writing. The power of the written word is arguably stronger than that of paintings because no matter who transcribes the poem, the words themselves and the meaning behind those words stay the same. If the speaker chose to immortalize his love through painting, the style and intricate details would change slightly depending on the painter. But poetry is always replicable and true to its original meaning.

In the end, the speaker is able to immortalize his love in his poetry. And his beauty lives on and inspires countless others still today. The written word might not capture his physical characteristics, like his eye color or hair texture, but the essence of beauty is apparent in every word.

"Sonnet 65" - Key takeaways

  • "Sonnet 65" was published by William Shakespeare in 1609.
  • Shakespeare uses personification, metaphor, simile, symbolism, and alliteration to enhance the meaning and help readers visualize the poem.
  • "Sonnet 65" is written in the traditional English sonnet form with 14 lines comprising three quatrains and one couplet with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG in iambic pentameter.
  • The central themes in "Sonnet 65" are the relentless passage of time, the fragility of beauty, and the power of the written word.
  • The meaning of "Sonnet 65" is that although nothing can stop Time from destroying physical beauty, beauty can be immortalized emotionally in the written word and out stand the test of Time.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sonnet 65

The meaning of "Sonnet 65" is that although nothing can stop Time from destroying physical beauty, beauty can be immortalized emotionally in the written word and out stand the test of Time.

The themes in "Sonnet 65" are the relentless passage of time, the fragility of beauty, and the power of the written word. 

The miracle in "Sonnet 65" is the verse and written words in "black ink" that accomplish preserving love and making the beloved immortal. 

"Sonnet 65" uses metaphors to compare the Fair Youth's beauty to "summer’s honey breath" (line 5) and "Time’s best jewel" (10). 

"Sonnet 65" was published in 1609.

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