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.
It’s the contrast of sounds that makes the start of this Shakespeare sonnet (65 nel the sequence of 154) especially arresting. The opening line’s assembled concrete nouns have weight and mass: brass, stone, earth (presumably as in “planet Earth” though the added suggestion of heaped soil is effective) and “boundless sea”. These words seem to embody tangibility compared with the plaintive fragile cadence of “sad mortality” – though it’s the latter that has the power to “o’er-sway” them.
The memorable question, introduced in line three, is no less emotionally stirring for the legal metaphor implied by “hold a plea”. It’s as if the speaker had himself grown increasingly angry and distressed: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” A single word, “rage”, (denoting the rapacity of time) abolishes the thought that any justice will be done in such a court of appeal.
From the frail “flower” of line four, the thought expands to evoke the whole odour of summer. It’s a reminder of an earlier sonnet (18) where the beloved is found “more lovely and more temperate” than a summer’s day. Adesso, anche se, we’re swiftly transported from fragrant fields to a war zone with “The wreckful siege of batt’ring days”. Questa volta, the sound effects reinforce images of noisy demolition.
After the crescendo, a dramatic quiet falls with the exclamation, “O fearful meditation!” There’s a shift to cool rhetorical elegance in the subsequent question, “where, alack, / Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?” Theft follows war, and the “best jewel” that “beauty” represents is now the “spoil”. Some interpreters take “chest” to mean “coffin” rather than “treasure-chest” but the syntax allows both possibilities. The line could be asking where the best jewel out of the whole treasure-chest can safely be hidden or where the best jewel can be hidden from Time’s internment. The image of a hand trying to grasp the enemy by the foot reinforces the “stop thief” idea with satisfying physicality.
The concluding couplet reworks a familiar theme. The endurance of the poet’s words is memorably asserted in Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Don Paterson, in an essay in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary), objects that “nothing will shine bright in black ink if there’s no one to read it”. That’s true enough if the destruction the reader envisages is entirely realistic – and Sonnet 65 has urged us in that cataclysmic direction.
But there’s room in the poem to draw back from universal annihilation, and imagine personal loss, even if there’s no addressee – and the vulnerable “beauty” is attributed to no one in particular. In the broad context of the sonnets, beauty takes at times specific human forms, and the lover has an identity. In Sonnet 65 his signature can be found in the owning up to “my love” in the last line. E, Dopotutto, the poet is invoking a “miracle”: there’s a faint suggestion of fallibility. This inexplicable wonder might not work out. And if it does, then why shouldn’t black ink retain such freshness it shines out starrily in starless, loveless space?