A reading of a classic Shakespeare sonnet
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 81 (‘Or I shall live your epitaph to make’) is another poem that deals with the notion of immortality through poetry: the poet will make the Fair Youth live on through his verses about him. Stephen Booth, in his analysis of the Sonnets, has nearly five whole pages of annotations on Sonnet 81, indicating that, whilst its meaning may seem clear enough, it has hidden ambiguities.
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.
Before we proceed to analyse Sonnet 81, a brief paraphrase of the poem’s meaning may be useful, by way of summary: ‘Whether I survive you, and thus have a chance to write your epitaph, or you survive me, it doesn’t much matter either way – your memory will live on, and death cannot take that away, even though memories of you that dwell in me will be forgotten because my body and brain will be dead. From now on, your name will live on forever, even though I, when dead, will be forgotten by the world; I will lie in a common grave, but you will be laid to rest in an elaborate tomb which men can visit and see. This is because my poetry about you will form your monument, which people who haven’t even been born yet will one day read. And these future generations will recite and recall your nature, when everyone who is now alive during our lifetimes is long dead. You will live on, because my writing has the power to survive and will keep your memory alive, and you will dwell in the mouths of men who recite my poetry – so you will dwell where that symbol of life and the living is most keenly found, in the breath of living men.’ (NB: the first word of this sonnet makes it sound as though it’s a continuation of the previous sonnet, but ‘Or’ here needs to be analysed with its Early Modern meaning of ‘Whether’, i.e. ‘Whether I outlive you, or you outlive me…’)
There is much to admire in the way Shakespeare handles language and imagery in Sonnet 81. Look at how ‘rehearse’ and ‘o’er-read’ don’t simply suggest the idea of reading poetry, but of reciting it, as though in a play (thus recalling Shakespeare’s duel profession as a writer and actor). But then stop and consider how ‘rehearse’ also buries a brilliant pun on ‘re-hearse’, reminding us of the tomb, monument, and epitaph mentioned earlier in the sonnet, and thus carries an additional meaning of ‘remembering or memorialising again’.
Stephen Booth, in his wonderfully detailed commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, offers a curious insight into the way Elizabethans pronounced words which we now pronounce differently: there was no fixed pronunciation of words like ‘read’ and ‘dead’, for instance, so ‘read’ (as in the present tense) could actually have rhymed with ‘dead’ in Shakespeare’s time. Indeed, ‘earth’ may even have rhymed with ‘death’ (and ‘breath’) in the sixteenth century. Much as it’s now thought that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would probably have rhymed ‘move’ with ‘love’, such rhymes, which seem imperfect and deliberately ‘off’ to modern ears, would not have been so when Shakespeare penned the Sonnets. Of course, this depends on individual regional accents, too.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 81 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here.