About Sonnet 81

by Michael Peverett


    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 entombèd 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.

By this stage in the sequence the general form of the argument is familiar: we have exulted in many such resounding claims for the life-giving power of the author's verses – the theme emerges first in Sonnets 15-19. Yet there is a difference here. The author is, at this moment, somewhat annoyed with his friend: because of the encouragement given to those rival poets. He finds himself almost arguing: I grant this, I grant that... (79, 82); he conceives himself as a plain-speaking, "true-telling" friend; and in due course he comes out with a pretty sharp rebuke at the end of Sonnet 84. The general form of all the sonnets to the young man is "how very, very much I love you" but here we are quite a long way from the tranced ecstasy that you can see at its very height in, say, Sonnet 31.

In Sonnet 81 Shakespeare is not ready to voice his resentful feelings. But it's no accident that the first line of Sonnet 81 uses a form of words that in a different context could easily be a threat; no accident, either, that he flings so grim an idea as "rotten" into the mix – his over-emphatic self-abnegation (Oh I, I'm nothing, I'm food for worms) is just the kind of thing you say when you intend your lover to receive it as an accusation. He's upset.

And there is something blurry in the sonnet's words. The phrase "from hence" begins line 3, and then recurs in line 5, but the reader trying to make the two phrases parallel belatedly discovers their disparity: take from is a regular English expression, but have from isn't, so then you have to go back on yourself and reinterpret what's being said. Later in the sonnet Shakespeare uses "breathers" to refer to people alive in 1595; two lines later he is speaking about breath in the context of people living in the distant future. Throughout the octet our general belief that Shakespeare is referring to his sonnets is troubled by uncertainty about whether in fact he might be talking about the friend's yet-unwritten epitaph, the pompous yet-unbuilt tomb, or even the rhetorical praise of his rivals. Only in line 9,

    Your monument shall be my gentle verse,

is the expected statement perfectly explicit.

Explicit – but now problematized, as it never was in the mighty boast of Sonnet 19, nor in the frail hope of Sonnet 60. In these poems, as different as they are, we don't really get involved in discussing the convention itself. Of course (we agree unthinkingly) verse confers immortality. Shakespeare's verse does, anyway! But now we think: – Well, does it? What kind of immortality? How could it do that?

Line 5 says that the young man's name will have immortal life. That's one of the things that provokes uncertainty about what we're talking about here. The Sonnets, of course, do not name any names – you never used real names when you were writing sonnets. Perhaps Shakespeare supposed that the identity of his friend would be well-known enough anyway. Simple readers have spent a lot of effort trying to clear this up. Then began a fashion of rebuking simple readers for this shameful interest, which no true lover of the sonnets should ever possess – I think Auden did this the most stridently, and with least pretence of an argument.

But let's concede this much: that the kind of immortality of the name that is conferred by an epitaph or a tomb inscription is not the thing that Shakespeare hoped to give. There are plenty of poems from that time where the subjects are named: all those dedicatees, all those dusty nobilities with their manifold virtues who, for example, are forgettably roll-called in the poems of Jonson. I mean no slight to some brilliant poems, but, does Sir Lucius Cary "ever live young"? Or even the Countess of Pembroke?

Nor, probably, should we be thinking of that immortality conferred by biography: the initimate peculiarities of the famous. Sixteenth-century Lives evince no interest in those aspects of personality – though this particular author's plays patently do exactly that. But the Sonnets do not tell us what the young man said or what he liked to wear or what time of day he got out of bed. It's tempting, perhaps, to go to the other extreme: to understand the Sonnets' promise of immortality as profoundly ironic in effect, to suggest the young man completely disappears, is reduced to a pure instrument for Shakespeare's poetic virtuosity, the expression at most of the artist's own feelings, a device for promoting the artist's own immortality. The gazed-at as mere object, the gazer dominant and luxuriating in his own power – well, you've read it all before.

Shakespeare himself refers us not to a kind of literature that had hardly come into existence but on the contrary to a kind of literature that was already extinct, the Arthurian romances.

    When in the chronicles of wasted time
    I see descriptions of the fairest wights... (106)

Did he conceive of the young man immortalized in his verses somewhat like those ever-fresh faces of Galahad and Guy of Warwick? Perhaps he supposed Stella and Delia, in like manner, immortalized, as eternal images of incomparable beauty? Immortalized but not particularized: just as Shakespeare would pick up those expressions of an antique pen and transfer them – or it might be Adonis, or Helen (53) – to his own experience of the young man, so later lovers (as in Sonnet 55) would adapt his own verses to their own loves. A prophecy amply fulfilled in fact – but inasmuch as this is the poetic of the sonnets that is imaged within the sonnets themselves, it supplies a very reductive account of what the sonnets really achieve. And it doesn't content me, because the author is much too stressed (for example, in Sonnet 81) about this matter of immortality, a stress that can't be accounted for if the immortality is something that is a very well understood mechanism that a poet of Shakespeare's mettle could hardly fail to deliver on.

"Fair, kind, and true", the poet sums up in Sonnet 105, as the relationship moves towards a stasis after three years, and inevitably dims – enlarges – into serene generality. And we think: fair, definitely; kind, on the whole; true, you have to be joking. But the poet isn't lying: he perceives as mature lovers do, celebrating a total image that is not refuted by instances of ugliness, cruelty and betrayal. It's miraculous – the way writing is miraculous – but though we can't get at the young man directly, we do know him. Not because Shakespeare describes him – a description is anyway always motivated, suspect, unverifiable – but because the Sonnets, at the very extreme of their creativity, are helplessly candid: This is what he made me write. In Sonnet 81 a Shakespeare with the cunning of low self-esteem speaks (in verse that is far from gentle) of "my gentle verse" – he means us to think, not rhetorical, not stately, not coloured; but since his verse has plenty of all those things, how does he differentiate himself from (if it's them he means) Chapman and Marlowe? To me the gentleness is not about low-key emotion, far from it, but about total flexibility – more specifically, responsiveness to whatever is flying about. His faith in his verse – painfully insecure as it is – rests on brilliance of execution, yes, but also on the intimacy of his knowledge of the young man. And what is the relevance of intimacy? I mean, if we're not talking about biographical details? I believe we are dealing with, that despised word, sincerity.

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