«Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme».
Sonnet 55, one of Shakespeare’s most famous verses, asserts the immortality of the poet’s sonnets to withstand the forces of decay over time. The sonnet continues this theme from the previous sonnet, in which the poet likened himself to a distiller of truth.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Although the poet’s previous pride in writing verse is missing in this sonnet, he still manages to demonstrate a superbly confident spirit: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rime.” He clearly abandons, at least for the time being, his earlier depressing opinion of his verse as “barren rime,” for next he contrasts his verses’ immortality to “unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time,” meaning that the young man will be remembered longer because of the poet’s having written about him than if descriptions of his beauty had been chiseled in stone.
The next four lines address the same theme of immortality, but now the poet boasts that not only natural forces but human wars and battles cannot blot out his sonnets, which are a “living record” of the youth. Monuments and statues may be desecrated during war, but not so these rhymes.
In the first seventeen sonnets, the poet worried about death’s effect on the youth’s beauty and questioned the nature of his sonnets’ reputation after both he and the young man died. Now, however, in lines 9 through 12, he boldly asserts that death is impotent in the face of his sonnets’ immortality: To the youth he says, “Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity / Shall you pace forth.” In fact, he asserts that the young man’s name will be remembered until the last survivor on earth perishes: “. . . your praise shall still find room / Even in the eyes of all posterity / That wear this world out to the ending doom.” Only then, when no one remains alive, will the youth’s beauty fade — but through no fault of the youth or the poet.
This notion of “the ending doom” is the main point in the concluding couplet. The syntax of line 13 — “So, till the judgment that yourself arise” — is confusing; restated, the line says, “Until the Judgment Day when you arise.” The poet assures the youth that his beauty will remain immortal as long as one single person still lives to read these sonnets, which themselves will be immortal.
English audio from YouTube Channel Socratica
Summary from Cliffsnotes.com