In “Sonnet 65,” Shakespeare shows us very little hope that beauty will be able to endure the forces of time and mortality. By the end of the poem, the author explains that the only place beauty will be immortalized is in his writing. In making his point, it appears Shakespeare merely poses several emotionally driven, rhetorical questions, however these questions are logically coherent. By the poem’s end, these questions lead the speaker and reader to an acceptable solution for the preservation of beauty.
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The rhyme scheme of this poem (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG) separates the fourteen-line sonnet into three quartets and one final couplet. By posing seven consecutive questions without any solution, the author creates a grave sense of despair. Not until the couplet is the reader exposed to a shimmer of hope. Each cluster of lines, utilizing different sentence structure, fits into the logical progression of the poem. In the first quartet, which is the first sentence as well, the speaker asks us to consider how well beauty will be able to fair against mortality.
If stone, earth, sea, and brass all fall victim to mortality, how then will beauty be able to last? He uses legal terms like “hold a plea,” which in modern English changes to the term “make a case.” When contemplating his second question, the speaker changes from metaphors based on legal images to metaphors of war and belligerence. Time is presented as a “wreckful siege of battering days.”
Once again, the despair is heightened because of the hopeless situation into which beauty is placed. The speaker asks if rocks and gates of steel cannot withstand time, will beauty be able to last? Adding to the despair of “Sonnet 65,” in these first two quartets, Shakespeare presents beauty as a delicate and meek object, and contrasts it with fiercer imagery. Beauty, represented as a flower and “summer’s honey-breath,” is positioned within the same sentence as a “boundless sea,” “gates of steel,” and “rocks impregnable,” among others.
When moving from the first to the second question, Shakespeare flips the sentence structure. In sentence one, the objects beauty is being compared with (earth, stone, etc.) are placed first, then the force that will destroy beauty (mortality) is noted, followed by the sentence kernel (“beauty hold a plea”), and finally the sentence kernel’s modifiers. In the second question, the kernel is placed first (“summer’s honey-breath hold out”), followed by a metaphor for time (“wreckful siege”), then the forces beauty is being compared with, and finally the ruinous force (time) is noted.
Up to now, the speaker has used the entire quartet to pose a single question. In the final quartet, three questions will be asked within the space of four lines. Shakespeare begins the final quartet with an interjection, “O fearful meditation!” (such scary thoughts), referring to the outrageous opposition beauty must face, as mentioned in the first two quartets. He has posed two questions thus far, and has offered no insight on answering them. Another three rhetorical questions, logically interlocked with the preceding eight lines, are asked in this final quartet. These questions are designed to deepen the tone of despair until we are given any definite solution in the final couplet.
The first question Shakespeare presents is, “. . . where, alack, Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?” The immediately striking wording in this clause is “Time’s best jewel.” Literally, the most outstanding creation that has ever existed is beauty. Time and beauty, especially in the second quartet, have been suggested to be opposing forces. Time, thus far in the sonnet, is the force that is trying to ruin beauty. Now we see that time is the very force that is responsible for the creation and destruction of beauty; beauty exists because of and within time’s power.
Shakespeare chose “chest” as the speaker tries to determine where beauty will finally find safety. Throughout this sonnet, and especially in this quartet, words with multiple denotations are used to increase the complexity of the poem. “Chest,” on one level, can refer to the chest of a human being. (We have already seen time personified with pronouns like “his,” and on line 11, time is given a human appendage: a foot.) Shakespeare means that beauty will finally reach safety when it is wrapped in time’s arm and nestled in his chest. “Chest,” on another level, can be interpreted as a box where items of reverence can be stored in safekeeping. Moving on logically with the idea of mortality and death in the first quartet, a “chest” is the coffin that beauty is seeking to avoid.
Another question Shakespeare poses in this quartet is, “Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?” Once again, the author is personifying the concept of time by using the pronoun “his.” The most literal meaning of this question is along the lines of: “who will be able to prevalent the destruction of beauty?” However, “spoil” has two other meanings that relate to the context of “Sonnet 65.” The first plays on the war metaphor in the second quartet. The “spoils of war” refer to objects seized in battle.
In the second quartet, time was described in terms of a “wreckful siege.” Shakespeare has already asserted that time and beauty quarrel. Now, unless someone or some force intervenes, beauty will be lost like treasure that has been seized in battle. Moreover, “spoil” can refer to a plot of land that has become unserviceable in some way. Metaphorically, beauty has been compared to a delicate flower and the honey-breath of summer, which is the sweet smell of blossoming flowers. If the ground is ruined, flowers, or beauty, cannot flourish.
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The remaining question Shakespeare asks in this quartet is, “Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?” Two key phrases should be examined in this line. The first is “his swift foot.” In acquiring a human foot, time is further personified. More importantly, he is saying that time is swift moving. The image of the foot here creates an image of a running person.
Either the speaker is fearful that time, as it runs, will trample and destroy this beauty, or that time, passing by very quickly, will overlook beauty and forget it. In the other important phrase, the speaker is searching for a “strong hand” that can hold back the foot (of time). On a most literal level, the “strong hand” is the image of a human hand capable of restraining the foot that is about to kick or trample beauty. On another level, he can be looking to his writing hand as the hand that allows beauty to endure. In either case, he is desperately searching for a way to avoid devastation.
In the final rhymed couplet, the speaker discloses the solution on how beauty can be preserved. Shakespeare knows that beauty cannot survive forever as a living being or as an idea in his head. The only way it can endure is through his writing, therefore he claims, “O, none unless this miracle have might, That in black ink my love will still shine bright.” Nothing can prevent the ruination of beauty but this poem.
First, Shakespeare affirms the notion on line 11 that the hand capable to hold back the swift foot of time will in fact be his writing hand. Beauty will last in the black ink he uses to jot this verse. All other preceding questions have been answered. Placing himself at the level of God, Shakespeare asserts that he has a power that ranges over divine forces like time and mortality. And no one has the ability to preserve beauty like he.
There is uncertainty as to whether “beauty” refers to a specific person, or to the feeling of being in love. I believe, with a poem as emotionally driven as this, and by comparing beauty to the scent of summer (the feeling of a summer fling), Shakespeare is speaking not about an individual, but about being in love. However, there will always be much debate on this topic.
Shakespeare poses several emotionally driven, rhetorical questions, however these questions are logically coherent. By posing seven consecutive questions without any solution, the author creates a grave sense of despair. Despair is heightened because of the hopeless situation into which beauty is placed. Time, for most of the sonnet, is the force that is trying to ruin beauty. Shakespeare repeatedly personifies the concept of time by using the pronoun “his.”
But later on the reader is made aware that time is the very force that is responsible for the creation and destruction of beauty .Words with multiple denotations are used by Shakespeare to increase the complexity of the poem. By making use of innovative literary devices, Shakespeare creates definitive meaning of beauty and time, intertwined with a sense of complete despair.
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