Sonnet 71

As per most bloggers, my mom is my biggest fan. She’s been the one championing for me to discuss Sonnet 71, so here we go!

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are usually split into four sections: 4 lines, 4 lines, 4 lines, and the final rhyming couplet (2 lines), so I’d like to go through it that way.

Section the First

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:

The first thing that intrigues me is the line ‘From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell’. It was common for Renaissance thinkers to consider the temporal world as vile, suggesting that the afterlife, in contrast, would be…well, heavenly! Shakespeare, though, is different. To him, once the ‘surly sullen bell’ rings, his soul is not worth thinking of anymore, because all that’s left of him is a corpse. This idea brings death back down to earth in a way that’s almost blasphemous because it’s neglecting the idea of the soul going to heaven in favour of considering where the body lies.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, 1948

Lying with worms is one of Shakespeare’s favourite images, one that he applies in Hamlet. The image adds treason to blasphemy by implying that no matter how rich, famous, or powerful some are, all humans die and decompose, effectively eliminating any social divides.

Section the Second

Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.

I know sonnets are written on the topic of love, so this might sound redundant, but what I find to be the most beautiful part of this poem is the love. The sonnet’s implicit humour aside (see next section), Shakespeare’s sacrifice of his own vanity for the sake of his lover’s grieving heart is so sweet that only Shakespeare can put it into words. It would have been positively groundbreaking for one man to say that to his male lover, but Shakespeare’s plainly-spoken words that communicate a profoundly-imagined sentiment render this poem universally accessible.

Sections the Third and Fourth

O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

On the surface, this poem is about a lover forbidding his partner to mourn his death. On a deeper level, Shakespeare is dictating his own post-mortem public relations as a celebrity writer. Explicitly, Shakespeare says that his name is ‘poor’ (not worth remembering) and that the whole world will ‘mock’ him (and his ‘poor’ works) after his death.

Now, take a moment and re-read the poem. It’s beautiful! It’s heart-felt! The alliteration (the repetition of a sound within poetry or prose) he uses (Mourn for Me; Surly Sullen bell; Warning to the World; from this VILE WOrld, with VILEst WOrms to dwell) make the poem flow like a dream, whether you read it or say it aloud. Delicious word choices aside, the beautiful alliterated sounds remind us that no matter how ‘poor’ Shakespeare claims his name is, he’s proving his skill as a star poet.

So do I think that Shakespeare truly believed that his memory would be mocked after his death? I doubt it. I know that he knew that his name is ‘poor’ because his family wasn’t particularly well-off, but I think that he’s being modest so his followers could dispute his self-deprecation and declare how awesome he really was. This passive-aggressive strategy is more formally known as the ‘humilitas’ trope. It was a strategy used by several Renaissance writers, a short-handed way of gloating while remaining classy, and a way of discounting themselves from blame for poor writing, should their wealthy patrons not enjoy their work.

The long and short of it is that Shakespeare wanted to wind up on top. He could either be applauded for predicting that his works were rife for mockery or his crafty rejection of remembrance could have been his geniusly passive-aggressive way of ensuring that his words immortalized his memory for generations to come.

As always:

–         Questions?

–         Comments?

–         Arguments?

–         Suggestions?

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3 Comments

Filed under Sonnetpalooza

3 responses to “Sonnet 71

  1. RA

    Thank you for starting the Sonnetpalooza with my favorite. I have often wondered if Shakespeare viewed the world as the vilest world or the wise world? Was he being sarcastic in calling peers of his lover wise if they mocked his loss? The love of the writer was evident with the urging not to grieve and yet I don’t think he was concerned about the mockery of his life and work but that the world might mock his lover. The alliteration is brilliant as is the imagery in this work. Your commentary insightful.
    Your greatest (perhaps biggest too!) fan.

  2. Iris

    how would you cite your page? Im in love with your blog btw

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