You may know William Shakespeare as the man who brought you Hamlet and 400 years of bad puns on "to be or not to be." But Shakes was the kind of guy who shakes things up. Even though his plays were bringing home the bacon, he didn't limit himself to one genre. From 1593 to 1601, he churned out 154 sonnets that dish about every aspect of love, from longing and lust to full-blown jealousy.
At the same time, they're super-self-conscious—not like, "Does iambic pentameter make me look fat?", but because they discuss the purpose and power of poetry. Will says it himself in line 2: nothing will outlive "this powerful rhyme." These sonnets are ripped and they know it.
So how does Sonnet 55 fit into the game? The sonnets are usually divided in two sets: the ones written to an unidentified young man (1-126) and the ones written to the even more mysterious "dark lady" (127-152). (The final two are so weird that they're pretty much their own category.) This puts Sonnet 55 smack-dab in the middle of the "young man" set and, more specifically, in a group of sonnets concerned with the relationship between love and time. Spoiler alert: after enough time passes, everything dies, including love.
But that's where poetry swoops in like Superman to save the day—literally. Like many of its amigos, Sonnet 55 is a half-sad, half-confident meditation on love and poetry's power to preserve it. Wars and death may come and go, destroying buildings, art, and even the physical bodies of young lovers, but Shakespeare is forever.
It happens every New Year's: you make a resolution to write in your diary and actually, really, this-time-I-promise commit to doing it. And even if you do peter out by February, that still leaves a whole month of remembered days: how you felt when you bombed the biology test, that freak-summer day when you played Frisbee after school, the stupid but hilarious joke that made you laugh in the library—all the stuff you never would've remembered if you hadn't thought, "Hey, maybe I should stop chewing this ballpoint pen and actually write down what I'm feeling right now."
Shakespeare's on the same page. Unless you're a poetic and dramatic genius, your private musings are probably not on par with Shakespeare's finest—let's keep it real, friends—but your diary and Sonnet 55 are coming from a similar place: they both want to preserve a specific moment forever.
Now, Shakespeare's a savvy guy. He knows what happens to beautiful young men as the years go by (hint: it involves wrinkles). Soon people start to forget how smokin' hot you were and, before you know it, you're all living at the senior center wearing dentures and watching reruns. It's not a pretty picture.
But trust the greatest writer ever to have a pen—or should we say, quill?—up his sleeve. Shakespeare outwits the violence and sadness of time by writing a poetic diary, by preserving the memory of his love and his beloved's beauty in sonnets. "But you shall shine more bright in these contents," he tells his lover in line 3, "than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time." In other words, everything is subject to decay and aging, even stone and marble. But because this beautiful dude is memorialized in Sonnet 55, his memory will stay fresh and vibrant forever. Not bad for 14 lines, right?