William Shakespeare – Sonnet 81
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
This and sonnets 49, 63 and 77 belong to a goup of ‘climacteric sonnets’, all of them significant in that they look forward mentally to a time when the love between poet and youth will have altered perhaps beyond recognition, and either one or the other will no longer be present to record the history of their commitment to each other. All will have come to an end. The sonnet therefore interrupts the rival poet(s) sequence, but to numerologists and those interested in fateful numbers and dates, the number 81, being nine squared, is far too important to miss.
It is worthy of note also that this sonnet countermands the superiority of the supposed rival with its confident claim that it will survive beyond the present age and speak aloud to ages yet unborn. Despite his humility the poet claims immortality for his verse, and eyes yet not created shall read and admire it. We as readers cannot fail to be conscious of the fact that we are the ‘eyes not yet created’ and the ‘tongues to be’, and the consciousness of this knowledge adds a further eerie dimension to our understanding of the poem.
Equally worthy of note is that none of the commentators regard this sonnet as having any numerological significance. SB perhaps considers such matters as beneath notice; GBE notes that it interrupts the ‘rival poet(s)’ sequence, and that its confident tone associates it with 18 (the reverse of 81, although he does not mention this); KDJ remarks that it is one after 80 or four score, a figure associated with extreme old age (she does mention the climacteric numbers in her introduction); JK passes by on the other side as it were; and HV concerns herself strictly with verbal echoes and parallellisms.
However I reproduce below part of the OED entry for ‘climacteric’ and ‘climacterical’, the latter at least giving an entry for 1590. The subject was throughout the period of considerable concern. The fact that Elizabeth survived her grand climacteric (her 63rd year, 1596) was a matter of some import. The ‘sad augurs’ must have thought it most unlikely that she would survive, but in the end had to ‘mock their own presage’. They had already predicted dire calamity for 1588, a year which was exactly seventy years after Martin Luther had defied the Pope, an event which marked the end of a cycle of human affairs. And seventy years was exactly the span of the Babylonian Captivity (See Daniel and Revelations). The concern with precise numerical factors, hidden meanings, and fateful dates was widespread. Climacteric dates were based largely on the mysterious numbers 7, 9 and 11.
The point here is however that the sonnet is placed deliberately at this juncture, halting the rival poet sequence, and in a sense overturning that sequence. It is done deliberately so, of that there can be no doubt, for the other critical numbers are similarly observed. We cannot ascribe to mere chance the choosing of subject matter for 12 & 60; 49, 63, 77, & 81; and, to a lesser extent, 37, 38, 52, 76, 104,126 and 154. They all seem to have been set there with deliberate purpose, even though, through the dark backward and abysm of time, we can no longer discern exactly what that purpose was. But mere chance would not have placed such sonnets at such points, and they no doubt hold the key to some lock, of which unfortunately both lock and key have long since been thrown away.
The OED entry for climacteric:
1. A critical stage in human life; a point at which the person was supposed to be specially liable to change in health or fortune. According to some, all the years denoted by multiples of 7 (7, 14, 21, etc.) were climacterics: others admitted only the odd multiples of 7 (7, 21, 35, etc.); some included also the multiples of 9. grand (†great) climacteric (sometimes simply the climacteric): the 63rd year of life (63 = 7 × 9), supposed to be specially critical. (According to some, the 81st year (81 = 9 × 9) was also a grand climacteric.) The phrase appears to have been taken immediately from Spanish.
1634 Sir T. Herbert Trav. 158 This false Prophet (sore against his will) died in his sixtie third yeare (his great Clymatericke). c1645 Howell Lett. I. iii. xi, It is a common+custom amongst the Spaniard, when he hath pass’d his gran climacteric+to make a voluntary resignation of offices. 1697 Dryden Virgil Ded., I began this Work in my great Climacterique. 1712 Addison Spect. No. 295 31, I am turned of my great Climacteric. 1728 Morgan Algiers II. iv. 293 He lived to see one of those critical and reputed dangerous Periods of Human Life, Called the Gran Climacterics, dying in his sixty third Year. 1742 Fielding Jos. Andrews iv. vii, When they arrive at this period [15 yrs.], and have now passed their second climateric. 1823 Byron Juan x. xlvii, Her climacteric teased her like her teens.
1. = climacteric A. 1; esp. applied to the ‘grand climacteric’ or 63rd year of life; see prec. B. 1.
1590 L. Lloyd Dial Daies Oct. 25 Georgius Castriotus+died upon this day in his climatericall year 63. 1602 W. Vaughan Nat. Direct. 47 These they name climacterical or stayrie yeares, for then they saw great alterations. Now, a climactericall yeare is euery seauenth yeare. 1609 C. Butler Fem. Mon. ii. (1623) Eij, This Climactericall number of nine times seven. 1611 Cotgr., L’an climactère, the climatericall yeare. 1693 W. Freke Sel. Ess. iv. 23 Who but one that has more Fancy than Judgment would mind the Climacterical Years? 1839 De Quincey Wordsworth in Tait’s Mag. 10/1 An elderly man, who confessed to having passed the grand climacterical year (9 multiplied into 7) of 63.
For those interested in vocabulary usage, it is noticeable that the use of the word ‘shall’ in this sonnet is extreme, underlining the fact that it is a sonnet that looks to the future, both to death, and to immortality, the absence of death. The word occurs seven times here, and only sixty times in the sonnets as a whole, a rate of use that would lead us to expect the word about once in every three sonnets. It therefore exceeds the average rate of use here by a factor of about twenty.
The other most noticeable vocabulary feature is the interplay between ‘I’ and ‘you’, the words or their close relatives occuring almost alternately, with the juxtaposition in some lines of ‘the world at large’, ‘other eyes’, ‘other tongues’. Thus the sequence runs – I, you, your, me, your, I, me, you, your, others, others, your, others, you, my, others – the whole giving a pleasing sense of symmetry.
Another sequence which strikes the eye of the mind is the alternation between life and death and their respective trappings . This sequence gives – live, Epitaph, survive, rotten, memory, death, take, forgotten, life, gone, die, grave, entombed, lie, monument, created, to be, being, breathers, dead, live, virtue (= life force), breath, breathes. Only towards the end do the life-enhancing words begin to predominate. I do not believe for a moment that any poem is ever constructed solely on the principle of observing such patterns, but the unconscious mind probably helps to shape the underlying thought, and brings into play all the disparate elements. The poet only begins after the event to realise what a wonderfully dense and complex structure has been created.
The 1609 Quarto Version
OR I fhall liue your Epitaph to make,
Or you ſuruiue when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortall life ſhall haue,
Though I ( once gone) to all the world muſt dye,
The earth can yeeld me but a common graue,
When you intombed in mens eyes ſhall lye,
Your monument ſhall be my gentle verſe,
Which eyes not yet created ſhall ore-read,
And toungs to be, your beeing ſhall rehearſe,
When all the breathers of this world are dead,
You ſtill ſhal liue (ſuch vertue hath my Pen)
Where breath moſt breaths,euen in the mouths of men.
1. Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or … or = whether … or. Usually the meaning is ‘either … or’, but in this case both the sense and the sequel require another meaning. Hence: ‘Whatever happens, whether you or I die first, death will not obliterate your memory because etc.’ The interpretation, that since one of the two events is sure to happen, therefore the statement is banal, seems to miss the point. For this is not a philosophical proposition of the type ‘if not a then b’, but a consideration of what might follow in either event, and to boot a perfectly normal and heartfelt human concern ‘What will happen when either of us two lovers predeceases the other?’
epitaph = an inscription on a grave or monument. The word is from the Greek, and was originally applied to a funeral oration. SB stresses the Greek origin, giving the derivation – epi = on, and taphos = tomb, grave. Strictly speaking the word is derived from epitaphion, being the neuter of the adjective and applied to a speech given as the oration over a tomb. (See OED). The most famous example is that of Pericles over the fallen dead in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, although the word itself is not used there. (Thucydides.II.36 on). One must question how much of this Shakespeare might have known, given his ‘small Latin and less Greek’, or, supposing him to know it, how much it was relevant to him in this poem. He may have had the more English custom in mind, that of writing an epitaph in verse, and publicising it, as Ben Jonson did, for example, for his son. (See below). In any case the word had the more general meaning of an inscription on a tomb, and figuratively that of a commemoration of a dead person. Here in the context of the sonnets already written in praise of the youth, and those declared as a monument for the ages yet to come, the most likely epitaph would be the collection of sonnets written with the youth as inspiration, this one included.
Ben Jonson ON MY FIRST SONNE
Farewell, thou child of my right hand and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy,
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soone scaped world and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie
BEN. JONSON his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.2. Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,As in Sonns. 71 & 74, the poet stresses the body’s decay, a prospective fate which he applies zealously to himself, not however to the beloved, who, as it were, only dies by implication, and scarcely seems to rot. In any case the youth will have immortal life through these poems.3. From hence your memory death cannot take,From hence = from this world, from these poems.
your memory death cannot take – a reversal of word order – ‘Death cannot take our memory of you away’. As in all these reversals, it is worth considering what the alternative might mean. Here it would be ‘The memory of you, the knowledge of what you are and were, is not sufficiently strong to take death away, to obliterate it altogether’. The meaning is not entirely innapposite to the theme of the sonnet.4. Although in me each part will be forgotten.By contrast I will disappear completely and every part of me will be forgotten.5. Your name from hence immortal life shall have,your name – it is supremely ironic that the youth’s name is never mentioned, unless in some discreet and arcane way. The only immortality, such as it is, which accrues to anyone from the poems, is to the poet himself, a point probably not lost on the writer. The conceit was in any case a common one in poetry. One suspects that a man who made no effort at all to publish his plays when he was alive must have written with tongue in cheek when claiming immortal life for the subject of his sonnets, however much it might have suited the perceived relationship between lover and admired youth.
from hence = from this moment on (?); stemming from these verses (?).6. Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:to all the world must die = will die and be forgotten by all the world (while you, by contrast, will be remembered).7. The earth can yield me but a common grave,yield = give me, supply me with. The use of the earth which is usually synonymous with the world, is here suggestive of humble burial in the earth, in a churchyard.
a common grave = a grave which is like that of all other men of the common mould. Not necessarily a pauper’s grave, but certainly an undistinguished one. In fact Shakespeare lies buried in some style in Holy Trinity church, Stratford on Avon, as a man of wealth and fame. But the exigencies of poetic style and the stance of humility which any sonneteer worth his salt had to adopt in the face of his beloved is enough to justify the self effacement which the line implies. The contrast is between that of the common grave which has no memorial, and that of the celebrated worthy whose memorial is his decorated tomb, or his reputation, or poems written in his honour.8. When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.entombed – many tombs in churches were elaborate, and had carved alabaster or marble figures on top. They therefore were rather conspicuously prominent, visible to the eyes of parishioners who came to worship on Sundays and feast days. However the meaning here is more that of being entombed gloriously in these verses, as the following line makes evident.9. Your monument shall be my gentle verse,The idea of verse being a perpetual monument dates back at least to classical times. One of the earliest memorials in verse is that written by Simonides for the Spartan dead at Thermopylae, circa 480 BC: Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their laws. Monuments of a more traditional kind, which are here hinted at, were to be found in abundance in churches and cathedrals throughout the country. (See illustration opposite).
My gentle verse – perhaps it is gentle (mild) in contrast to the furious cruelty of time. The word in Shakespeare’s day often had a similar meaning to the modern one, as the following examples show:
As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle,— AC.V.2.
Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman. KL.V.3.
But apart from that there was a strong leaning to its original meaning of ‘well born, belonging to a family of position in society’ (OED.1.a.) Consequently here it may be ‘gentle verse’ since only such would be fitting for a man in an elevated social position such as that which the youth is implied to have held.10. Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;eyes not yet created … tongues to be – future generations. They are figuratively represented by the parts that are involved in reading and declaiming the verses.11. And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,rehearse = repeat, recite publicly.
your being, = you, as described in these poems.12. When all the breathers of this world are dead;the breathers of this world = those who are alive now. You will still be alive (through my verse) when all who are alive today are dead and gone.13. You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,still = always, for evermore, continuously.
such virtue = such power and essential vitality. such virtue has my pen – the poet temporarily lets slip the mask of modesty which he usually adopts in relation to his own merit as a poet. It completely contraverts the humility shown in the rival poet(s) sequence in the midst of which this sonnet is placed.
Q’s punctuation allows these two lines to be read as a continuation of line 12, and it is at least as justifiable as that adopted here.14. Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
Where breath most breathes – rather an odd phrase, but it condenses the fact that breath is necessary for life, and also necessary for reciting poetry, so that the beloved lives in the place where life is most vital, through the mouths of men who recite his glory.