O! lest the world should task you to recite
What merit lived in me, that you should love
After my death,–dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove.
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart:
O! lest your true love may seem false in this
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth.
This sonnet continues the theme of the previous one, that the youth should not seek to perpetuate the memory of his beloved, or the love itself, for the world will only seize upon it as an occasion of mockery, and the writer himself declares that he is unworthy of such memorial or such a loving remembrance. Far better that he be buried and his name be buried with him. In that way the youth will escape the shame and taint of association with such a worthless character.
Here also, as in 71, the poem contradicts its own message, for it is itself a memorial, even though it flatly refutes the need for any such testimony. But this inherent contradiction does not weaken its impact, for the restatement of the selflessness of love seems to make that love outlive its own annihilation. Although there is an underlying sense of fear that the youth will not be truthful or faithful (either before or after death), the prevailing truth is stronger, that omnia vincit amor, love conquers all.
The 1609 Quarto Version
O Leaſt the world ſhould taske you to recite,
What merit liu’d in me that you ſhould loue
After my death(deare loue)for get me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy proue.
Vnleſſe you would deuiſe ſome vertuous lye,
To doe more for me then mine owne deſert,
And hang more praiſe vpon deceaſed I,
Then nigard truth would willingly impart:
O leaſt your true loue may ſeeme falce in this,
That you for loue ſpeake well of me vntrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And liue no more to ſhame nor me,nor you.
For I am ſhamd by that which I bring forth,
And ſo ſhould you,to loue things nothing worth.
1. O! lest the world should task you to recite
lest the world = for fear that the world might . A continuance of the idea voiced in the concluding couplet of the previous sonnet. The prying and interfering world might seek to know more details of our love, might conduct an inquisition.
task = command, force, give the task to. As in King John where it is used also in connection with forced interrogation:
What earthy name to interrogatories
Can task the free breath of a sacred king? KJ.III.1.147-8.
interrogatories = questions put, as part of the interrogation process, to be answered on oath.
to recite = to declare, to speak out.2. What merit lived in me, that you should love
What merit lived in me = what merit there was in me;
that you should love – that can refer to the merits which the beloved loves in the poet, in which case should means ‘ought to’, or ‘might’; or that could be a conjunction, and the meaning becomes ‘what merits there were in me that caused you to love (me, them)’. Both meanings are appropriate. Q gives no comma after love, although many modern editions have one. Without the comma the sense of this line carries on into line 3, allowing the beloved to continue loving after death. Punctuating with a comma tends to restrict the after my death clause to line 3.3. After my death,–dear love, forget me quite,
dear love, forget me quite – this can function as a command almost independently of after my death. ‘Whatever else has preceded, dear love, forget me now completely’. The use of dear love recalls some of the earlier moments of tenderness, beginning with dear my love, you know 13; dear friend 30; dear religious love 31; our dear love 39; thou best of dearest, and mine only care 48. It is the appearance of these simple declarations in the midst of so much complex thought that makes the sonnets so overwhelming in their effect. As with for I love you so in the previous sonnet, no amount of analysis can explain why such a simple phrase should work so magnificently – partly it is the unexpectedness of its appearance here, for what we have been led to anticipate is a feast of verbal richness, when suddenly we are presented with the thing itself, love shorn of all pretensions, nothing other than the basic and unadorned declaration, which means everything that the poet has been trying to say all along. ‘I love you so that I would even wish you to forget me, for love has no before and after, no death, and no ending.’ Or as John Donne expressed it a few years later
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of Time.4. For you in me can nothing worthy prove.
nothing worthy = nothing that has any worth; with a possible pun on ‘worth thee’. prove = establish by testing or trial or argument(OED 5); but probably also includes a hint of ‘to approve’; i.e. there is nothing in me of sufficient worth that could make you approve of me (or it). prove and approve derive from the same root, (Latin probare) and Shakespeare frequently uses the latter in the sense that is closely related to prove. The most common usage of prove in Shakespeare is with the meaning ‘to turn out to be’ (OED 8).
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain R3.I.1.28-30.
This would yield an additional meaning to the line – ‘For you, being united with me, (as lovers are one and the same person), can only turn out to be of no worth, since I am worthless’. This chimes more with the theme of these two sonnets, 71-2, than the other interpretations.5. Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
I have retained Q’s punctuation of line 4, which makes Unless the start of a sentence.
would = were to;
devise = invent;
virtuous lie – virtuous in the sense that the beloved is charitable in trying to preserve the memory of his friend. The sinful lie would therefore have a good intention. virtuous also has the meaning of ‘forceful’. The virtue of a plant was its efficacy and the power of its healing properties (OED 9.b).
…….no cataplasm so rare
Collected from all simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death Ham.IV.7.143-5.
(simples = herbs).
Hence ‘a potent lie’. The oxymoron also plays a part in suggesting that the youth is virtuous and would not normally resort to lying. A suggestion that is further enhanced by the word plays on truth and untruth in lines 8-10.6. To do more for me than mine own desert,
Sc. – than my own desert or merits can do for me (by way of preserving my memory). desert was pronounced desart.7. And hang more praise upon deceased I
hang more praise upon – figuratively, in the sense that praise bedecks a person with words. A reference also to the practice of hanging written epitaphs on tombs of the recently deceased. In Much Ado Claudio hangs an epitaph (which he first reads) on the tomb of Hero. MA.V.3.
more = more than I deserve.
upon deceaséd I = upon me when I am dead. The ungrammatical use of I instead of me suits the rhyme and is understood easily enough.8. Than niggard truth would willingly impart:
niggard = miserly, sparing. Truth cannot tell more than what is, therefore a person recalling the deceased could limit themselves only to the bare fact, without any of the embellishments that a lover might add. But here mere truthfulness without any adornment could be construed as a failure of love.9. O! lest your true love may seem false in this
This quatrain mirrors the first one, using the same opening exclamation.
true love = loyal and devoted affection; the one you truly love; the one who is your true love, as in My true love hath my heart and I have his etc. If one takes the two latter meanings, the sentence unfolds to imply ‘For fear that your beloved may seem falsely described, do the following to prevent it happening ‘. The first meaning is straightforward and may be paraphrased as ‘For fear lest your true affection may be compromised, do this etc.’.
in this = this undertaking to speak well of me, as described in lines 5-8 and 10.10. That you for love speak well of me untrue,
untrue = (although it is) untrue; untruthfully. The adverbial use (the second meaning) is uncommon, but attested in OED.11. My name be buried where my body is,
My name be = Let my name be, allow my name to be. One cannot physically bury a name, but metaphorically the meaning is to consign it to oblivion, as the body is consigned to the earth and no longer lives.12. And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
And live no more = and let my name live no longer. There is however a lurking secondary meaning of ‘You yourself should not live any longer, shaming both of us by your refusal to speak of and acknowledge our love.
nor…nor = neither … nor.13. For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
I am shamed = I bring shame and dishonour upon myself;
that which I bring forth = my offspring, my verses. Perhaps also my thoughts and actions. The latter is less likely, since the poem is about a hypothetical time when he is dead and buried.14. And so should you, to love things nothing worth.
And so should you = and you too would be (shamed);
to love things nothing worth = as a result of loving worthless nonentities; if you loved such dross.