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 besmeared 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 Judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
Shakespeare's love sonnets are among the most read, most known, and most talked about poems in the English language, but I feel like oftentimes they're overlooked because of his reputation as a playwright. This, Sonnet 55, is a testament to the enduring power of love, ideas, and poetry as compared to the works of men. Addressed directly to some lover (the "you" of this poem), Shakespeare asserts that the lover's beauty will long outlive all the great works of man.
The greatest works of men "gilded monuments of princes" cannot outlive the rhyme that Shakespeare crafts. This seems a bold claim, but so far, it's holding true. How many castles have crumbled since this poem was written? Their former beauty is diminished, parapets toppled, moss encroaching upon the once clean stones (though some would argue that enhances their Romantic appeal). The lover of this poem is indeed shining brightly, not like the "unswept stone besmeared with sluttish [dirty, unclean] time."
No war or calamity can unseat this ideal of beauty. Even though we know that "wasteful war shall statues overturn" it is impossible, even for Mars, the God of War, and his mighty sword to "burn the living record of your memory." This poem is that living memory, still alive and well more than four hundred years later. The beauty will outlive death and oblivion, the lover of it pacing forth to be praised by all of history (lines 9 and 10). Until the ending of the world, this lover's beauty, immortalized by Shakespeare, will be appreciated.
Until the Judgment day, when all arise, this lover, this love object and ideal of beauty, will live forever, "and dwell in lovers' eyes." That to me is the crucial part of this poem. While attempts can be made, across the wide body of Shakespeare's sonnets, to construct firmer, clearer pictures of the lovers he addresses, in this one sonnet, we are given no information about the lover, not even a gender. The beauty is measured solely in terms of its endurance and strength against time and decay. It allows the reader to insert their own lover, ideal love object, into the poem's conceit, and for that love to live, to "dwell in lovers' eyes." By reading and thinking on this poem, we further immortalize it, proving the truth at its core.