Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways 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 battering 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.
The theme of mortality is continued, with the same items of earthly longevity and stability quoted as in the preceding sonnet - brass, stone (towers), earth, and the all hungry but mortal ocean. Their stability is mere sham and their strength a complete illusion. How, in all this wasteful ruin, may such a fragile thing as beauty survive? It seems indeed to be an impossibility. Yet there is one hope, a slender chance, that the immortality of verse will hold out against the advancing destruction of time and that the youth's ever young beauty will be preserved, by some miracle, in the mortal words that the poet writes.
Although this is a recurrent theme in the sonnets, as for example in 18, where we are assured that:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee
here the sense of threatened personal loss and the invincibility and inevitability of time's advancing destruction make the remedy more poignant and less assured. Perhaps words also will be swept aside in the general wrack. Perhaps the ink will not be strong enough to outshine death, and its blackness will turn out to be symbolic of darkness to come.
Whatever the outcome, we are left with a sense of sorrow and the awfulness of impending doom for the youth and for all humanity.
The 1609 Quarto Version
SInce braſſe,nor ſtone,nor earth,nor boundleſſe ſea,
But ſad mortallity ore-ſwaies their power,
How with this rage ſhall beautie hold a plea,
Whoſe action is no ſtronger then a flower?
O how ſhall ſummers hunny breath hold out,
Againſt the wrackfull ſiedge of battring dayes,
When rocks impregnable are not ſo ſtoute ,
Nor gates of ſteele ſo ſtrong but time decayes?
O fearfull meditation , where alack,
Shall times beſt Iewell from times cheſt lie hid?
Or what ſtrong hand can hold his ſwift foote back,
Or who his ſpoile or beautie can forbid ?
O none,vnleſſe this miracle haue might,
That in black inck my loue may ſtill ſhine bright.