Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55

Dear Class X

Shakespeare is my favourite dramatist and poet. His Sonnets are literary marvels not just because of what he says in them but also how he says it.

154 sonnets written by Shakespeare in the 1590s were printed posthumously (after his death). The poem in your English syllabus is Sonnet 55. Here is an animated Shakespeare reciting the sonnet from Youtube which I could not resist. I hope you enjoy listening too:

Shakespeare dedicated his earlier works to William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke and to Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, whose initials are W.H. and H.W. respectively.

This sonnet belongs to a group named (by critics) the Fair Youth Sonnets. These sonnets are about a fair (good-looking) young man, referred to mysteriously by the poet as W.H. It could be Pembroke, but Shakespeare could have deviously reversed the initials to refer to Wriothesley!

Coming to structure, the Shakespearean or English sonnet has three quatrains (4-line verses) followed by a rhyming couplet. That makes 14 lines in all. Here is the rhyme scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Check whether this matches Sonnet 55.

The Sonnet is written in Iambic Pentameter, with each line containing 10 syllables, starting with a stressed syllable and ending with an unstressed syllable. Each line has 5 feet. Each foot has 2 syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed. Like this:

Not már / ble, nór / the gíl / ded mó / nu ménts

The theme of Sonnet 55 is that poetry is more powerful than Death/Time the Grim Reaper. The poet’s verse will, therefore, immortalise his friend, the Fair Youth:

Death/Time the Grim Reaper

Death/Time the Grim Reaper

Note: The medieval concept of Death as the Grim Reaper (with monk’s robe and cowl, hour glass and scythe) reminds one of Atropos (Third sister of the Triad of Greek Fates) or Morta (same Roman concept) who holds the shears that cut off the thread of man’s life.

Thanatos, depicted as a winged youth with a sword, was the Greek God of Death.

Charon, the boatman who rowed souls of the dead to Hades across the River Styx, was traditionally depicted as a ragged and ill-tempered old man with flowing beard and glowing eyes, or later, even as a demon.

Only in modern times (paranormal fiction and video games) Charon is also depicted as a skeleton in a cowl wielding a scythe.  So Gaurav, this would not apply to Shakespeare in the sixteenth century.

Next, here are some pictures of the main characters and places in Shakespeare’s life. Click on the pics to see them fully and clearly:

 Finally, you can click on SONNET 55 TS, download and save it on your computer or tablet at home to help you recall the main points of our discussion during the lesson at school.

I hope this post will help you during your SA-1.

Sanjukta Sivakumar

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