But be contented when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.
This is the last of the quartet of sonnets which deals with old age and death. Finally the possibility of survival assumes a spiritual dimension. The fact that Time with his crooked knife can take all away is somehow alleviated by the persistence of the ‘better part of me’ which triumphs over the body’s death. The poem links to many others in the series, especially those which deal with the unity of lovers, for here the poet’s spirit is also the beloved’s, and his spirit manifests itself in his verse, which will be a monument and a memorial for all time. Thus the miracle is achieved, that the dull substance of his flesh, no more worthy than the coward conquest of a wretch’s knife, becomes transformed into the magic of eternal verse which conquers death and allows love to flourish where it seemed to be destroyed by death.
The imagery of this sonnet probably depends on two important Christian doctrines, transubstantiation and Resurrection. The latter is quite evident in the contrast between the body, the dregs of life, the prey of worms, and the spirit which survives and ‘remains’ after death. The doctrine of transubstantiation is brought in by the transformation of the mere lines of verse into the absolute essence of the man, the miracle of making physical substance into something spiritually profound. The miraculous transformation mirrors the point in the communion known as ‘the consecration of the host’, when the bread of the host is transformed into the body of Christ, from which all derive spiritual life. The link is perhaps tenuous, but given the proximity of the ideas of eternal life achieved through drinking from the Pierian Spring of the Muses or partaking of the spiritual bread and wine of Christianity, and the fact that Shakespeare’s language in the sonnets often echoes Holy Scripture, it is far from being fantastic.
The 1609 Quarto Version
BVt be contented when that fell areſt,
With out all bayle ſhall carry me away,
My life hath in this line ſome intereſt,
Which for memoriall ſtill with thee ſhall ſtay.
When thou reueweſt this,thou doeſt reuew,
The very part was conſecrate to thee,
The earth can haue but earth,which is his due,
My ſpirit is thine the better part of me,
So then thou haſt but loſt the dregs of life,
The pray of wormes,my body being dead,
The coward conqueſt of a wretches knife,
To baſe of thee to be remembred,
The worth of that,is that which it containes,
And that is this, and this with thee remaines.
1. But be contented when that fell arrestBut be contented – The poem either may be construed as continuing immediately from the preceding one: ‘You perceive that I am in the sere and yellow leaf, and soon must die, but do not dismay yourself etc.’ Or the but may be taken as relating to some antecedent argument and discussions with the beloved, stemming from the original declaration of 71
No longer mourn for me when I am dead.
Note the punctuation of Q, which does not put a colon after contented. It is followed here, apart from the removal of the comma at the end of the line. See SB p.261.n.1-2 for notes on alternative punctuation.
when that fell arrest – i.e death.
fell = savage, cruel, terrible.
arrest = the same as the modern meaning of a seizure, or taking into custody. Death is personified as the official who carries out a court’s decree. See OED 7,8, & 13. But there is also more than a hint of the other meaning, the act of stopping something in its course. Hamlet uses the words before his death in the same sense as here.
Had I but time, as this fell Sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest–Ham.V.2.328-9.
when – links both forwards and backwards: But be contented when that fell arrest etc.But also: when death comes my life has an interest, a title, a share in this line etc.2. Without all bail shall carry me away,Without all bail – this continues the legal terminology. Bail could in some cases be offered to free a person from arrest. The system was already well established in Elizabethan England. See for example The Comedy of Errors when Antipholus of Ephesus is arrested.
Officer. I do arrest you Sir; you hear the suit.
Ant.E. I do obey thee till I give thee bail. CE.IV.1.80-1.
carry me away – as an arresting officer takes the person away to prison. See also note to line 7 of previous sonnet.3. My life hath in this line some interest,this line = this verse, these verses. Also with a reference to life line which has a variety of meanings – the thread of life spun by the Fates; the life line on one’s palm; the family line or tree. interest = share, property tie, legal title. The modern meaning of ‘desire to know about’ or ‘concern for’ is later. But there is probably a secondary pun on the word interessed meaning ‘intertwined with’, as in Lear:
……………….Now our joy,
Although our last and least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interessed: KL.I.1.81-4.4. Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.for memorial = as a memorial;
still = always, for evermore; nevertheless, in spite of death.5. When thou reviewest this, thou dost reviewreviewest = view once again, look over once more. The meaning of ‘to write a criticism of a book or work of art’ is much later.
this = my verse.6. The very part was consecrate to thee:The very part = precisely that part of me, i.e. my spirit, my love for you. See the note to Sonnet 39
O, how thy worth with manners may I sing,
When thou art all the better part of me?
was consecrate to thee = which was consecrated, dedicated to you. consecrate is an old form of the past participle (now ‘consecrated’). The verb was used to describe the ordination of priests and bishops (OED 3) and also in connection with the transformation of the bread and wine, in the Mass, into the body and blood of Christ (OED 2). The consecration of the host in the Catholic Mass is achieved by the utterance of the words hoc est enim corpus meum – for this is indeed my body. The Protestant faith under Elizabeth had a similar communion service. There could therefore be a blasphemous suggestion here that ‘this verse’ has become the body of the poet by the ‘reviewing of it’. He lives again in the lines he has written, the word becomes flesh and dwells amongst us. SB sees ‘no sacrilege here, or contempt of Christian doctrine’. I do not think there is, for it is not so much a matter of dogma as of enrichment of the poem by suggestion. The idea of transubstantiation seems to be relevant to this sonnet, yet it would have been difficult, in Shakespeare’s day, to have alluded to such matters in a love sonnet and avoided the charge of blasphemy. It is probable that, because it only hovers in the background, and is never made explicit, that Shakespeare cleverly avoids the ‘lie direct’. The late publication date of the sonnets, coupled with the fact that they were not reprinted, may indicate that there was too much in them that was controversial. This could be one of many such passages, which lie hidden for the most part, but when one stumbles upon them they are like mines in the undergrowth.7. The earth can have but earth, which is his due;This recalls parts of the burial service, ‘earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes’, Book of Common Prayer 310, and the Catholic Lenten ritual of Ash Wednesday, memento homo, quia pulvus est, et in pulverem reverteris – remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. The use of consecrate in the line above with its connotations of religious doctrines, has already introduced the religious theme.
his due = its (the earth’s) due, that which belongs to it, that which it has by right.8. My spirit is thine, the better part of me:spirit – perhaps the nearest modern equivalent is ‘soul’. spirit is used 12 times in the sonnets, but its meaning is indeterminate. Onions gives five meanings: vital energy, life; anger; intellectual power; exquisite sense; and various uses in the plural form. Here its meaning is implied by the better part of me, and perhaps one should interpret it in a Neo-Platonic sense – the essential or ideational essence of the person. The contrast is quite clearly being drawn between the spiritual and corporeal parts, the latter being consigned to worms and the wretch’s knife.
the better part – see the note to line 6 above. Probably also a humorous reference to ‘my better half’ meaning ‘the wife’. See OED better 3.c. The phrase is used by Sidney (1580 ) [Argalus to Parthenia, his wife] My deare, my better halfe (sayd hee) I find I must now leaue thee. Arcadia iii. 2809. So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,but = only;
the dregs of life = the foul sediment which remains after the pure wine has been drawn off from the barrel. Hence the filth and discardable residue of life, when all that is of value has been removed. Shakespeare uses it often to denote the baser material of a person. The word is synonymous with ‘lees’ and I give an example of each below
He, like a puling cuckold, would drink up
The lees and dregs of a flat tamed piece; TC.IV.1.63-4.
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of. Mac.II.3.93-4.
The beloved, through the death of the poet, has lost, or would lose, when the eventuality occurs, only the lover’s body, not his soul.10. The prey of worms, my body being dead;The prey of worms – a biblical description of the body after death. It also recalls the first sonnet of this group of four
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: 71
The association of death with worms and corrupting decay was a commonplace. In Sonnet 6 the youth is urged to fight off death:
Be not self-will’d, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir. 6
Hamlet in the graveyard is the locus classicus of the thought.
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till ‘a find it stopping a bung-hole …… …….. to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? Ham.V.I.197-206.11. The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,A much discussed line, for it is uncertain whether the wretch is, perpetrator or victim, Time, or a common murderer, the wretch who dies in a tavern brawl, or the suicide in a garret. The line obviously refers to the body, being dead, and it could be read as an injunction to the youth to regard the poet’s body, when dead, as nothing more than something slain in a back alley. All that matters is his spirit. If Time is intended, then he (it) is portrayed as a coward brandishing a crooked weapon, approaching people unawares and slaying them in a cowardly manner. See GBE p.181.n.11 for a full discussion of the possibilities.12. Too base of thee to be remembered.Too base to be remembered by you. base here has the meaning of ‘earthy’, ‘lowly’, but the meaning of ‘low-born, socially inferior’ perhaps lurks in the background. The body is not worth remembering anyway, but the spirit survives, even if it is that of a person on a lower rung of the social ladder.
The -ed of remembered is pronounced, to rhyme with dead.13. The worth of that is that which it contains,that – The word play between that and this which is developed in the couplet begins in line 3 with this line, i.e. my verses. Here that probably has as antecedent my body, being dead, a thing which essentially has no worth, unless it is invested with spirit (that which it contains). But the phrase could perhaps have a more general meaning -‘The worth of that thing, the worth of anything, is only that which is its essence’.14. And that is this, and this with thee remains.And that is this = And that which it contains is, in this case, this verse, which is my spirit, my essence, the better part of me.
and this with thee remains = and this verse remains (indestructably) with you. The fact that that and this are here so deliberately intermingled allows various other interpretations, leaving some uncertainty as to precisely what, if anything, is expected to survive, or what that indefinable thing is that has intrinsic worth.