I have been contemplating Shakespeare’s 65th sonnet this weekend:
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 batt’ring 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. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65
A year ago today, I was sitting beside my father in the last days of his life. Three days later, it was my beloved cousin and friend Helen whose hand I was holding as she, too, fell prey to time and mortality.
Saying my final farewells to them both in the space of five days was certainly a “wrackful siege of batt’ring days”. I wrote poetry and reflections to both express and process my thoughts and feelings. I wanted people to know how I felt. I wanted people to understand who both these jewels were and why they would always matter, despite their having been being reclaimed from this life.
I learned more about grief, and I learned more about letting go. I had no choice, because there is no human hand or will strong enough to hold back the relentless march of time and mortality.
This sonnet expresses a reality of life: nothing can withstand the relentless power of time. Erosion, degradation, and decay overwhelm not only the frail, but also the mighty. True, rocks and brass may outlast flowers and flesh, but they too will yield eventually.
It is a poem of contemplation and resignation, but also one of defiance: time may be relentless, and there may be no way to “hold his swift foot back”, but one who is immortalised or memorialised in ink lives on, albeit in a different way. We can continue to remember and honour them, and to express our love for them. Our memories and mementos remain long after those who have fallen prey to time and mortality.
In Shakespeare’s time, they had fewer options for immortalising those who passed away than we do. They had eulogies and poetry – the black ink in which “my love may still shine bright”. They could create drawings and paintings. Now, in addition to those, we have photographs, video, and voice recordings.
Poetry and eulogies still touch our souls just as powerfully, though— whether written in the 21st century or the 16th, our written tributes and reflections endure and move us still.