Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways 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 batt’ring 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.
Summary and Analysis
The sonnet is structured around three quatrains, i.e. sets of four lines, raising a series of questions about the inevitable course of mortality. The sense of despair interspersed with awe for ‘Time’ the ultimate force which is presented in images of destruction, torture, ‘wrackful’ and utterly overpowering. In contrast are images of beauty, frailty and helplessness which succumb to ultimate waste. To suggest the over riding power of Time, other images of metal, hardness and long resisting elements are contrasted with delicate wonders emphasizing the extreme helplessness of beauty and the futile surrender to extinction. The juxtaposition between Life and Time is repeated through the quatrains but the final couplet declares the triumph over “decay” and “loss” unleashed by Time. The couplet is a tribute to the Art of poetry, the skill of the poet to preserve beauty and love through the monument of poetry. The sonnet seems to first brood over harsh reality as perceived by the poet, the sense of waste and perished love, in the face of Time, but concludes on a note of affirmation. What is mortal may yet find eternity; the verse can sing out the notes of love and praise of beauty and live on, to be recalled and reconstructed by future generations.
The first quatrain uses repetition to emphasise the main theme- How can beauty/love survive? The second quatrain re-emphasises the worthiness of beauty making the loss of it, even more painful through the use of “O!” to render pain. The repetition of “O” in the third quatrain which deepens the sense of pain, and the sense of urgency in the last part of the third quatrain leads to a surprising resolution articulated in the true spirit of poetry.