Seamus Cooney

"Since brass, nor stone, nor earth ..."

Here's Shakespeare's sonnet no. 65. I'm going to (a) space it out and (b) add in a running commentary that might be helpful to suggest the kinds of reactions one might have in reading it. Let me know if this helps.
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
"nor"="and not". A list . . . a slowly paced list. Of what sorts of things? what scope? what do they have in common?. . . Sentence is just beginning . . .
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
Ah . . . none of them last. And yet they sure seem strong and long-lasting. Is it true what he says? And anyway, so what? why mention this? Sentence not yet reached its main clause . . .
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Aha: here's the point: the sad pathetic vulnerability of "beauty". Very general though. Does he mean any particular beauty? "Hold a plea" is nice: a sort of legal image, no?
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Beauty doesn't have much going for it to oppose time. "Action" seems to continue the legal metaphor. The image gets more particular--"a flower"--though it's still relatively general. We're most conscious of the tone of the lamenting speaker, less so of any particular things he's naming. . . Poor pathetic beauty . . . Sentence has ended.
Oh, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
Fresh start: new sentence. Saying it again, more intensely. It's getting better, more specific. Lovely fresh sensuous appeal in "honey breath". Summer is a sweet-smelling person, a beloved presumably (you'd hardly enjoy smelling the sweet breath of anyone else). Its breath can hardly "hold out": wonder what that means? Last long enough? A singer sustaining a long note or phrase needs breath that will "hold out." And to "hold out against a siege" means to withstand a siege: so now the summer has turned into a besieged fortress or city. And the besieging enemy is using battering rams, and trying to wreck everything. Imagery: note that we're not totally visualizing summer as a person; it's a delicate suggestion that glides into the next image, that of the besieged town. And we don't visualize summer as a town, either. In fact "visualize" is too crude a term for what imagery this subtle does. It's somewhere between abstraction and fully visualized or realized concreteness: we take the general meaning as idea, while feeling the force of the physical things.
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
How shall summer hold out when (as he said at the start) even rocks can't last? The enemy now is identified: Time (personified, of course). Listen to the lovely intense sound of "impregnable": a long hard word for the meaning of hardness. Second sentence has ended.
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Intenser, more personal feeling now. The speaker is scared, facing up to a threat. But the question maybe implies that he'll come up with an answer? Image: Time is a miser, he wants his favorite jewel back again. He owns it? Who has it now, the speaker? And what is it? Can we already feel we know (if only on the basis of the other sonnets, which are love poems addressed to a beloved)? Probably we do.
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
Vivid images here: of someone thinking about trying to prevent a walker or runner from moving by grabbing his foot -- like a baby trying to stop an adult. "Spoil of beauty" is less vivid, but it gets specificity from the siege stuff earlier. When the enemies get in they take the spoils of war . . . and as for beauty, the way enemies "spoil" that, if it's a person's beauty, a captured enemy woman . . . well, enough said!
O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
The usual clinching couplet of the Shakespearean sonnet form. With the usual problem: is it strong enough to counter-balance the intensity of the problem stated above? He appeals to a miracle . . . is he confident here? Nice color contrast: black ink that he's writing with or that he'll be printed in . . . and the shining bright beloved gleaming through.

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