A reading of a classic Shakespeare sonnet
‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’ is one of the most widely anthologised sonnets by Shakespeare. In Sonnet 71, the Bard enjoins his beloved, the Fair Youth, not to grieve for him when he dies. Not so much a ‘remember me’ as a ‘forget me’ sentiment. But how sincere is such a wish? This sonnet is actually more layered and complex than it might first appear, so some closer analysis is necessary.
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than 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:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
First, a brief paraphrase of what Sonnet 71 actually says: ‘Don’t mourn for me, Fair Youth, when I’m dead: as soon as the bell has stopped tolling to announce my departure from the world, stop thinking about me as I leave the horrible world behind to go and dwell with the vile worms in the ground. If you should read this poem when I am gone, don’t remember the poet who wrote it, because I love you and it would make me sad to think that you would be sad to remember me. No, when I lie dead and am clad in the clay of the earth, and you read my poetry, don’t even think of my name – instead, let your love die with me. Otherwise, the world would see you mourning and weeping for me, and ridicule you, as they ridicule me for being in love for you and writing these verses.’
Sonnet 71 seems straightforward in its meaning, but it has attracted very different reactions and interpretations. Stephen Booth, in his stimulating commentary Shakespeare’s Sonnets, criticises Sonnet 71 for being inconsistent and contradictory: Shakespeare tells his beloved to forget him when he’s gone, but does so in a poem that is guaranteed to ensure the Fair Youth continues to remember the poet. Don Paterson, in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, likens this to the ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ command beloved of psychologists, whereby you are guaranteed to think of nothing but large pachyderms when you are given such an instruction. So, where does this leave us in ascertaining the true meaning of Sonnet 71, if there is a particular way we are supposed to respond to it?
Well, Paterson offers a corrective to Booth’s critique of the poem, arguing that the real meaning of Sonnet 71 resides not in its surface injunction (‘Forget me when I’m dead, and when you read this poem about how you are to forget me when I’m dead’) but in the pathos the lurks just under the surface: ‘The real tragedy’, Paterson suggests, ‘is that here you have someone so upset that he believes, or wants to believe, or wants someone else to believe this nonsense. To miss the note of hapless despair that suffuses this poem is to miss the only thing that redeems its patent illogic’. An intriguing interpretation, though we should remember the tradition of Elizabethan sonnet conventions in which Shakespeare is writing, and then perhaps Sonnet 71 doesn’t seem like as much ‘nonsense’. After all, elsewhere in the Sonnets Shakespeare promises immortality to a young man whose name he fails to mention anywhere – not the most logical way to secure someone immortality. Shakespeare has to say ‘forget me’: it would be a bold poet who asked his beloved (of whom he is confessedly unworthy) to remember him all the time when he’s gone. He’s putting on a show of modesty – false modesty, to a degree – because it’s the Fair Youth he’s meant to be celebrating and immortalising, rather than himself. (Ironically, of course, the Sonnets do the latter as much as the former, if not more so.) But Paterson is right, we think, that Shakespeare knows the argument that runs ‘forget me – even when you’re reading something I’ve written to you’ – is specious. But perhaps that’s the point: Shakespeare is playing on the ‘I, the poet, am not worthy’ tradition in sonneteering, and overturning this convention: of course he wants to be remembered. But he has to say ‘don’t remember little old me’.
The central argument of Sonnet 71 (if we may call it an argument as such) is similar to that which Christina Rossetti would later put forward in one of her sonnets. Once again, the poet is self-effacing there too. It’s poetic licence, or rather the opposite: poetic mandate. The poet must do himself or herself down and put the loved one first. But Sonnet 71 remains a firm favourite, as does Rossetti’s later take on the same idea. We readers like this poetic motif, it would seem.