Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lover’s eyes.
A famous sonnet which rings changes on the theme celebrated by Horace –
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
(I have built a monument more lasting than bronze…)
but here given a new meaning in that it is the loved one who is immortalised, rather than the poet. The poet is himself only the instrument to accomplish this end and he humbly celebrates the glory of the youth.
Yet on a secondary level we do not read the poem in that way at all, for we are well aware that the words survive far longer than any memory of the youth, whose face and name we do not even know. The striking images of crumbling stone and violent war etch themselves into our minds and in the midst of this waste and decay we realise that if anything will survive it will be the poet’s words, and both he and the loved one will be swept away into oblivion. Immortality of sorts is thus achieved for the poem, but for nothing else unless it be for the love which dwells in lovers eyes.
The sonnet shares its theme with that of several others, 18, 19, 65, 81, 107, 123, which oppose the power of verse to death and Time’s cruel knife, and promise immortality to the beloved. Curiously enough, it does not seem to make any difference that the verse immortalises the youth without revealing him, for the very fact of immortality seems to confer anonymity. The concluding couplet seems to be entirely satisfying, and we do not need to press furhter enquiries on the poet and demand to know who it is to whom eternal life is given. It is enough that he lives in lovers’ eyes, for they comprehend all mysteries, and perhaps, on the last day, at the ending doom, we will know all the answers anyway, and realise that they were not all that important.