‘Sonnet 65,’ also known as ‘Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,’ is number sixty-five of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Bard’s famous Fair Youth sequence of sonnets, which last from number one all the way through one hundred twenty-six.
These sonnets are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day. There has been a great deal of speculation about who this young man could possibly be, but no single identity has ever been decided upon. There are some who believe that Shakespeare only wrote these poems on commission, some that he was adopting a persona while writing, and others who believe that he is the “speaker” in the poems and truly had a relationship, whether platonic or romantic with the Fair Youth.
Sonnet 65 William Shakespeare Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o'ersways 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 battering 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.
The poem is not addressed to “thee” or “you” as the majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets are. Rather, the lines of ‘Sonnet 65’ refer obliquely to the Fair Youth and the impact that time is going to have on him. The speaker racks his brain for anyone or anything that’s been able to resist time and he can’t think of anything. The only way that the youth can possibly survive is to live within the poet’s writings.
‘Sonnet 65’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within one stanza, in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan) is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 65’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and personification. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “power” and “plea” in lines two and three as well as breath” and “batt’ring”. (The latter is also an example of syncope.)
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is a good example in line five where the speaker refers to the youth’s beauty as “summer’s honey breath”. This relates back to several other similes and metaphors in other sonnets where the youth is represented by warmth and the sun.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In this particular poem, as in ‘Sonnet 63’ and ‘Sonnet 64’ Shakespeare uses personification to depict “time” as something that has agency and the power to destroy at will.
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 65,’ the speaker begins by returning to the subject matter that he expressed an interest in throughout the previous two sonnets. Within those poems, as well as within this one, Shakespeare deals with themes of time, old age, and beauty. These are all discussed along with the Fair Youth and how the relationship the speaker has with him will change over time.
He acknowledges in lines one and two that everything is at the mercy of time. This includes “brass,” “stone,” “earth” and the “boundless” or limitless, “sea”. There is nothing that’s strong enough to resist the “sad mortality”. If these things few quite strong forces can’t fight back against time, then what chance does “beauty” have in the face of such power? Beauty, he says, 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?
He asks a rhetorical question in the second quatrain, another technique that is quite commonly used within Shakespeare’s sonnets. He wonders how the youth’s beauty (what he refers to as “summer’s honey breath) will be able to stand up against the “wrackful siege of batt’ring days”. The chances of the youth winning out seem entirely impossible as the “gates of steel” and the “rocks” are unable to withstand time.
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 or beauty can forbid?
O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 65,’ the speaker explains over this possibility. It’s terrifying to him, as he stated in the previous sonnets, to consider what time is going to do to his beloved. He wonders where he hides the youth’s beauty so that time can’t reach it. It is a creation of time, but one like all other creations, that time is coming to destroy.
He asks several other questions in this quatrain while considering who has the ability to guard against age and the destruction of beauty. The answer t these questions comes in the final two lines, another common feature of Shakespeare’s works. He provides an answer to a problem in the couplet.
With the turn, it becomes clear that no one is going to be able to stand up against time. There is truly only one possibility, that the speaker preserves the youth’s beauty within his writing.