Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways 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.
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65
Shakespeare seems to be aiming for depression at the start of this poem. Brass, stone, earth, sea, man; all these things diminish with time, so how would love and beauty fare through the ages? Beauty, “whose action is no stronger than a flower?” And how could his lover’s “honey breath hold out against the wreckful siege of batt’ring days?” I think the author is speaking more in terms of ages than aging. The “For better, for worse” in wedding vows pretty much takes care of the growing old factor of love. So how can he cement his lover in time, make sure her beauty is remembered? There isn’t really a conciliation anywhere; eventually, there’s a sort of conclusion. Shakespeare reveals his hope “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” I suppose it worked. So far, that’s the only way anything has ever been immortalized, and the fact that centuries later people still read of Shakespeare’s lover makes it a good strategy.
While staying true to the scheme and rhythm of the poetry style that was named after him, Shakespeare uses metaphors to play readers’ emotion like one plays a banjo at an Ozark hoedown. (thank you so much for that quote, John Malkovich) “Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?” is a brilliant example; personally, I don’t think there’s a woman I know who wouldn’t love to be called “time’s best jewel.”
I wonder how old Shakespeare was when he wrote this, to be so aware of time’s depredations. Aware and familiar, as he perfectly, originally describes it as something swift and sentient. Always, it’s something despairable or intimidating. A “wrackful siege” or “sad mortality o’er-swaying.” I wonder how different this poem would be if Shakespeare had had his mind on heaven and eternity…
This poem almost forces one to take in every moment and never take love for granted. To appreciate it and live it. And to love your spouse, even when you’re both irritable old people in a home. For better, for worse…?