A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
Sonnet 32 sees Shakespeare musing upon his own death. What if he were to die, and later poets come along with better poems for the Fair Youth? This is the starting-point of our analysis of Sonnet 32, in which the Bard discusses love poetry in a self-conscious way.
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 gist of Sonnet 32, in summary, is this: Shakespeare is worried that he will die, and these poems he has written praising the Youth will be forgotten in favour of finer, newer poems by a raft of younger admirers. He implores the Youth to keep hold of the Bard’s poems, inferior though they may be to these imagined newer poets’ efforts, ‘for my love, not for their rhyme’ – i.e. for the strength and depth of love in them, and the sincerity of that love, rather than the skill with verse which they (indifferently) demonstrate.
Then, Shakespeare entreats of the Fair Youth, think this of me: ‘if he had lived to be older and had a chance to perfect his poetic craft, he doubtless would have produced better verse that would have been worthy of comparison with the finest poets. But since he died before that could happen, I’ll continue to read better poets for their verse, and I’ll read his poetry for the depth of his love for me that they demonstrate.’
A simple, accessible meaning to Sonnet 32, then, and one that barely needs paraphrasing. How should we analyse it in the context of Shakespeare’s other sonnets? Shakespeare has previously doubted the worth of his verse, but he has also assured the Youth that his poetry will make him immortal. It would seem here that he is either entertaining genuine doubts about the efficacy of his poetry, or is assuming the modest poet role in order to emphasise the strength of the love he bears the Youth. ‘My words may not seem much, but they are from the heart,’ as a million love songs have said since.
After all, there is something inherently suspicious about too much artifice and skill when it comes to love poetry: the poet needs to be able to use language effectively, but upon analysis, if style is exalted over substance, the result can seem fake and contrived. Sonnet 32 is a nice example of why we should be on our guard against poetry that is too good to be true.