"Spare us of dying beauty," cries out Youth,
"Of marble gods that moulder into dust-
Wide-eyed and pensive with an ancient truth
That even gods will go as old things must."
Where fading splendor grays to powdered earth,
And time's slow movement darkens quiet skies,
Youth weeps the old, yet gives new beauty birth
And molds again, though the old beauty dies.
Time plays an ancient dirge amid old places
Where ruins are a sign of passing strength,
As is the weariness of aged faces
A token of a beauty gone at length.
Yet youth will always come self-willed and gay-
A sun-god in a temple of decay.
This wonderful sonnet comes to us from the 20th century American poet Louis Zukofsky. Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1904, Zukofsky came to literature first through Yiddish, then through English, interweaving multiple literary traditions. This poem was written when he was only 20 years old, and while it is not so ambitious or well-honed as his later works, I feel it's notable for the way it uses its form to play both with and against its subject matter.
The central conflict of the sonnet is between Youth and entropy. Entropy is the thermodynamic principle that all things eventually break down towards disorder. That's a gross oversimplification, but the essence is that things fall apart over time. It is the gradual movement from order to disorder. What we see in this poem is the cycle of creation and entropy, in perpetuity. "Youth weeps the old, yet gives new beauty birth / And molds again, though the old beauty dies." Youth asks to be spared this cycle in the first quatrain of the poem. Despite asking to be exempt, to be spared the "marble gods" of the past, it goes on and creates its own doomed monuments, its own ruins that signify passing strength.
For all this, "youth will always come self-willed and gay- / A sun-god in a temple of decay." No matter how the old gods have "mouldered" Youth will always be there, constant amid the entropy. This is where I find the formal choices Zukofsky made to be significant. He wrote a traditional, straightforward sonnet, a form hundreds of years old. It's as if in doing so, Zukofsky is honoring the traditions that Youth, in the poem, asked to be spared, despite being a young man himself. I think it elevates the poem from just being a routine sonnet to something a touch more thoughtful, and it is certainly beautiful. It's easy to imagine a beaming sun-god, standing proud and tall, though all things must eventually come to dust. Such is power of Youth, and Zukofsky obviously realized that.