Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
- These lines ramp up the imagery from stuff getting ruined by time to total destruction by war. "Wasteful war" means destructive war, like the kinda archaic meaning of "to lay waste."
- But instead of focusing on violence against actual people, the speaker focuses on violence against art. He warns that statues will be toppled and "broils"—another word for "commotion," like "brawls"—will smash up the stonework.
- What he describes is a smash-and-burn, mega-wreck of a war that is more about destroying a culture than about killing soldiers in a field.
- Like most of the poem, these calamities play out in future tense, but a lot of things are still unclear: Who's the enemy here? When is all this razing-the-town going down?
- Before you leave, notice the 3-word W-alliteration on "when wasteful war," followed by a 2-word S-alliteration. And yoo-hoo, look at those O's in line 6. Head over to "Sound Check" for the deets.
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
- Line 7 picks up mid-sentence and, folks, it's a pretty grim sentence at that. Lines 5-6 have set the stage for some pretty catastrophic future times. But even though line 7 keeps to the war and violence, the tide has turned. Things are looking up.
- These two negatives pack a punch: even as the speaker mentions the sword of war (wielded by Mars, the ancient Roman god of war) and fire, he negates them. They won't be able to cut out or scorch the memory of his beloved.
- "Living record" is a synonym for this sonnet, just like "powerful rhyme" (2) and "these contents" (3). "Record" seems appropriate—after all, this is a written down account of this boy and his wonderfulness. It's the "living" that seems odd. How can a poem be living?
- The speaker seems to suggest that these lines are powerful and vivid enough to keep this guy alive, through wars and fire and many long centuries. It's like a sonnet anti-aging drug.
- Just in case you missed the connection between Mars and battles, Shakespeare gave us an internal rhyme: "Mars" and "war's" (7).