If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bett’ring of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O! then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
But since he died and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love’.
The poet reflects on his own mortality and the possibility that the youth will survive him. He adopts a tone of modest deprecation of his poetic worth. Clearly the age will advance to great heights of literary merit. And poets of days to come will outstrip him in style and virtuosity. If that is to be the case, then he adjures the youth to remember him not so much for his poetic prowess, but for the fact that he outdid all his rivals in the love which he bears to him, the glorious youth, and that outvies all claim to poetic excellence.
It is perhaps needless to state that we do not take this sonnet at its face value. In fact we read it almost directly contrary to its suface meaning. For we value the sonnets as much for their poetic merit as for their love declarations. Just as with sonnet 26, and those referring to the rival poet(s), 79-86, we take with a pinch of salt the modest self denunciation and claims of inadequacy. Yet it is difficult to pin down precisely the verbal subtlety which prompts us to reverse the significance of meaning of, say ll.5-8, and read into them their opposite, or if not their direct opposite, something seriously aslant to their overt purpose. Paradoxically it seems that the poem exists only to say that which it does not state – that the poet marches among the ranks of the best, more richly caparisoned than most, and that his love is worthy of his Muse, and that one continually betters the other, each mutually raising the other in turn to new heights of excellence.
The 1609 Quarto Version
IF thou ſuruiue my well contented daie,
When that churle death my bones with duſt ſhall couer
And ſhalt by fortune once more re-ſuruay:
Theſe poore rude lines of thy deceaſed Louer:
Compare them with the bett’ring of the time,
And though they be out-ſtript by euery pen,
Reſerue them for my loue,not for their rime,
Exceeded by the hight of happier men.
Oh then voutſafe me but this louing thought,
Had my friends Muſe growne with this growing age,
A dearer birth then this his loue had brought:
To march in ranckes of better equipage:
But ſince he died and Poets better proue,
Theirs for their ſtile ile read,his for his loue.
1. If thou survive my well-contented day,well-contented day – the day of my death. Uncertain meaning. It could imply ‘fully paid up’, referring to death as the act of settling one’s accounts with Nature. Or perhaps well-contented in that I have enjoyed your love.2. When that churl Death my bones with dust shall coverthat churl Death – Death is depicted by Shakespeare as boorish and brutish because he destroys what is beautiful, like an ignoramus wrecking a fine palace. A churl was a boorish ignorant fellow…
A churl’s courtesy rarely comes, but either for gain or falsehood. Sidney.
my bones with dust shall cover – an echo perhaps from the funeral service – ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. Bones and charnel houses were the standard accompaniment to depictions of death at the time.3. And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
by fortune = by chance, perhaps;4. These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,poor rude lines = inadequate, crude lines of verse. The tradition of the lover belittling himself before the beloved was a long one in the history of sonneteering.
lover was used often in today’s sense of ‘friend’, but in a sequence of love sonnets it clearly means ‘he who adores you’. Sidney for example refers to himself as Stella’s lover, or as one who belongs to the traditional class of those, like Petrarch, who were passionately devoted to a chosen woman:
Dumb swans, not chatt’ring pies, do lovers prove;
They love indeed, who quake to say they love. A&S.54.
It does not follow that their love was physically consummated. In fact, if Petrarch and the other sonneteeers are to be believed, this never happened, and the most Sidney achieved was a stolen kiss from Stella on an occasion when she was asleep.5. Compare them with the bett’ring of the time,Compare them = compare my verses;
the bettering of the time = the improved literary skills of the time.6. And though they be outstripped by every pen,outstripped by every pen = outclassed by every poet then living;
pen = author, one who writes.7. Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,Reserve = preserve, keep, store, set aside;
not for their rhyme = not for their poetic quality.8. Exceeded by the height of happier men.Exceeded = surpassed.
the height of happier men = the lofty achievements of men who are more fortunate than I, and more blessed in their versifying abilities.9. O! then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:vouchsafe me = grant me, be so kind as to permit me to have. Vouchsafe is a word much used in the bible and Book of Common Prayer, and it is suggestive of prayer, humility, and a respectful attitude to things divine.10. ‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,Muse = poetic gift, inspiration;
this growing age = the present time, which is continually growing, therefore improving.11. A dearer birth than this his love had brought,A dearer birth = a more valuable, more precious output, creation, child. Poems were considered to be the poet’s children.12. To march in ranks of better equipage:The image is a military one, equipage being the equipment and furnishings of a military unit. We can take birth, Muse or friend to be the subject of to march. Hence ‘My friend, or his verse, could well have grown more worthy, so as to march in column with a more richly armoured and bedecked company (of soldiers, of rhymes)’.13. But since he died and poets better prove,poets better prove = poets have emerged who are better than he was. Poets nowadays turn out to be better.14. Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love’.I will read their poetry for its excellent style, but his (your’s) I’ll read because of its expressions of love for me, and the love it contains.