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Sonnet 55_T.

Törőcsik Tünde

The Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare is considered one of the best poems of the
author. This acknowledgement has been made by scholars of various times, emphasizing the
prominence of the verse through countless reading approaches like New Critical and
Formalist positions.

New Critical approaches to Sonnet 55 draw the attention solely to the text with the aim
to analyse the structure of the poem and to find tensions building up and characterising the
verse. The poem was written in accordance with the structure of all Shakespearean sonnets
with the special rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg and all composed in iambic pentameters.
The poem contains fourteen lines which are not segmented but appear in one block with three
quatrains and a rhyming couplet at the end of it. The argument with the main tension, to
achieve immortality, is escalating in the quatrains just to be resolved by a sudden twist in the
couplet. This reverse, the possibility of defeating death, holds the meaning and represents the
essence of the poem. When focusing on the structure of the verse, it can be seen that the first
quatrain introduces natural forces in the service of death. Concrete material like „marble” and
„stone” disappears in the course of time. But the poet states with great confidence that his
sonnet, his poetic force as „powerful rhyme”, will withstand and defeat the law of nature. In
the second quatrain death demonstrates even more ravage on Earth in forms of „wasteful
war”, „Mars” and „fire”, but still this havoc is not capable of destroying the poem, the
manifestation of passion. The third quatrain pictures the future life of his beloved, the vision
reaches great length in time „to the ending doom”. The poet is optimistic that he created such
a masterpiece that has every ability to hold and express his admiration „till the judgement”.
The last two lines, the couplet, point to the final solution of tension escalating through the
quatrains, and declare that immortality can really be achieved „You live in this, and dwell in
lover’ eyes.” However, the very notion of immortality is rather ambiguous as it has to face
with its own limitation, which is the end of the physical world. In order to mirror his personal
and expressive view to reality, Shakespeare employed various linguistic devices. Mars, the
god of war in Roman mythology, is the symbol of war, just as the sword and fire are the
symbols of death. The „ending doom” in line twelve stands for the very last day and
annihilation of our world, pointing to the „judgement” in line thirteen. This rhetorical form,
allusion, is a reference to the Last Judgement of the Bible, which makes the tone even more
dramatic and grandiose. In the expression of „sluttish time” ,in line four, the poet personifies
the time by adding the adjective of sluttish to it, indicating the qualities of dirtiness and
weakness in morality as if these attributes belonged to a human. The word „eyes” appears
twice in the poem, in the structures of „eyes of all posterity” and „lovers’eyes”. These
metaphores stand for the kind of existence where his beloved will live until the end of this
physical world. As the eye is the representation of the soul, so the admired person is going to
live both in the visible world, in the poem, and in the unvisible one, the heavenly place of
spirit. The paradox, which is whether the Last Judgement applies only to the end of the
physical world or designed to spell the destruction of the spiritual place too, resolved by the
knowledge of the Biblical prophecy declaring that after the great verdict there will be a new
heaven and a new earth. The paradox now is solved, the final conclusion can be drawn,
immortality can really be acheived.

In the aspect of Formalist interpretation of Sonnet 55, which also put high emphasis on
the analysis of the text, different concepts of evaluation seek to find what makes this poem
literary in contrast to ordinary speech. In regard to versification, the same conclusion can be
drawn as at the New Critical evaluation. Formalism also examines the rhyme scheme and
meter on the level of sound, but also notices the unusual deviation of these sound structures
from our everyday conversation. The unconventional word choice in the presence of
metaphores, allusion and symbols, described in the New Critical analysis, confirms the poem
literariness. Combination of words like „sluttish time” , „in the eyes of posterity” and „in
lovers’ eyes” reinforce the sonnet’s artistic value along with the unprobability use of them in
everyday language along with the inversion in line ten „Shall you pace forth”. The poet also
defamiliarizes our belief when he states that his sonnet, his poetry, will endure time and war
and is stronger than „marble” and „stone”. The possible existence of his loved one in the eyes
of other humans adds to the unusual perception. When forgrounding what is prominent in the
verse, it can be stated that the marvellous immortality of literature consequently places the
forces of nature and war to the background, highlighting the real function of literature as a
tool of eternal life, therefore elevating literariness high above our traditional existence.

In conclusion, although both critical approces focus on the text, their different methods
address different questions on what makes a text artistic. While in the New Critical analysis
the Shakespearean sonnet proves to be a prominent literary work of art by virtue of its formal
characteristics, the Formalist reading will conform the same evaluation of the poem but on the
basis of its formal as well as defamiliarized features.