“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme…”
Two and a half millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus remarked that “time is a game played beautifully by children.” Heraclitus seems to suggest that children are unaware of the passing of time and therefore untroubled by thoughts of mortality. Adults, on the other hand, have always struggled with time.
Poets throughout the ages, from William Shakespeare to Archibald MacLeish, have tried to answer the difficult questions time prompts: What do we do with the knowledge that time will sweep us and our loved ones away? How do we make what matters most to us last? The great poets have come to surprisingly different conclusions.
William Shakespeare took up these questions in a series of 154 sonnets that he wrote to a young aristocrat he was in love with. Many of the sonnets carry the hope that the poems themselves will save the youth from oblivion. Sonnet 55 is a prime example and definitely worth the read. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you.
You’ve probably noticed that the speaker sees the world as a harsh place. With “wasteful war” and “sluttish time” running rampant, he worries that the fair youth will be sentenced to a fate of obscurity. To preserve the youth as a physical object — a statue, for instance — would leave him vulnerable to destruction and neglect.
The speaker’s solution is to write poems to his beloved in which “your praise shall still find room.” The poem boldly concludes that “you live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.” “This,” of course, refers to the sonnet itself. The speaker expresses confidence that his beloved will live on through the poem, but his confidence masks a desperation. In the face of mortality, the speaker clings to life and legacy.
The claim both succeeds and fails. Shakespeare’s speaker is correct about the longevity of “this powerful rhyme.” Here we are, four centuries after its publication, continuing to read and discuss the sonnet. We do not, however, discuss the beloved youth, little of whom remains. While the speaker insists that “your praise shall still find room,” he does not “find room” in the sonnet’s lines to actually praise the youth. The poem is so concerned with its own ability to memorialize the youth that it fails to memorialize him at all. While Sonnet 55 is a beautiful, bold, and well-argued poem, it falls short of its goal. Time has swept the youth away.
The difficult questions Shakespeare struggled with remain to this day: What do we do with the knowledge that time will sweep us and our loved ones away? How do we make what matters most to us last? In 1930, the American modernist poet Archibald MacLeish followed in Shakespeare’s steps, taking up the same questions.
MacLeish’s “Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments” is a love poem inspired by Sonnet 55 and titled after its opening line. In writing of his own beloved, however, MacLeish’s speaker quickly gives up the Shakespearean goal of posterity. The opening stanza turns a skeptical eye toward the immortalizing attempts of past love poets:
“The praisers of women in their proud and beautiful poems,
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes,
Boasted those they loved should be forever remembered:
These were lies.”
The speaker understands that, despite a poet’s best efforts, the beloved always fades. Time cannot be stopped. Words cannot perfectly capture a person. “Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes” does not replace the body of the lover. At its best, language gestures at forms and memories. As MacLeish puts it in the next stanza, “the words sound but the face in the Istrian sun is forgotten.” The eventual oblivion of the beloved is a given. Where Shakespeare seeks to control, MacLeish surrenders.
Poetry, then, is neither a record-keeping tool nor a safeguard against the ravages of time. In MacLeish’s hands, poetry becomes a means to more vividly enter into the present moment — a topic Samantha discusses in another post. In the poem’s final lines, MacLeish’s speaker evokes a scene with his lover:
“And you stood in the door and the sun was a shadow of leaves on your shoulders
And a leaf on your hair —
I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women:
I will say the shape of a leaf lay once on your hair.
Till the world ends and the eyes are out and the mouths broken
Look! It is there!”
In contrast to Shakespeare’s grandiose aims, MacLeish attends to the smallest of details. The leaf-shaped shadow falling on the lover’s hair sends the speaker into a trance. Past and future fall away. Recognition and praise replace the need to preserve the lover from the onslaught of time. MacLeish understands that we can only truly praise what is before our eyes in the precise moment it is before our eyes, without concern for posterity. This immediacy shines through in the astonishment of the final words: “Look! It is there!” As if in response to Heraclitus, MacLeish has found a way to play the game of time beautifully. That way is praise.
A poetic eye can guide us into pockets of praise at any moment in our lives, and not only in the sphere of romantic love. The next time you find yourself rushing about your daily routine, stop. Stop and simply notice something in front of you. The light of a streetlamp reflected in a rippling pool of rainwater. A trio of crows circling overhead. The crescent-shaped crack in your coffee cup. Then do what a poet would do. Write it down. Turn those words into your own love poem. After all, to be a poet is to be in a love affair with the world around you.