IF thou ſuruiue my well contented daie,
When that churle death my bones with duſt ſhall couer
And ſhalt by fortune once more re-ſuruay:
Theſe poore rude lines of thy deceaſed Louer:
Compare them with the bett’ring of the time,
And though they be out-ſtript by euery pen,
Reſerue them for my loue, not for their rime,
Exceeded by the hight of happier men.
Oh then voutſafe me but this louing thought,
Had my friends Muſe growne with this growing age,
A dearer birth then this his loue had brought:
To march in ranckes of better equipage:
But ſince he died and Poets better proue,
Theirs for their ſtile ile read, his for his loue.
Sonnet 32 continues the obsequial conceit of its pair, Sonnet 31. The poet imagines a time when the youth has outlived him and closes the sonnet by penning for him words to constitute an epicedium. The opening “suruiue” is a conditional tense, ‘if you were to survive’ (from super + vivere = to live beyond). The poet’s “well contented daie” is that day or due date when he will have paid in full his debt (to nature); the phrase ‘to content someone’ meant ‘to pay someone in full.’ Since in the 17th century “daie” still retained its biblical meaning of ‘judgement’ as in “mans daie” or ‘judgement,’ an echo of judgement day is also present. 1 The image of death as a “churle,” one of low or rude status as well as one lacking largesse, was both classically (mors acerbissima) and biblically redolent, especially of Isaiah’s words, with which Shakespeare shows familiarity in Sonnet 1.
Then shall the foolishe nigarde be no more called gentle, nor the churle liberall . . The weapons of the churlishe are euyll . . that he may beguyle the poore with deceiptfull wordes, yea euen there as he should geue sentence with the poore. (32.5-7; BB)
The churl’s weapons (Vulgate, vasa = military equipment) will be echoed in the sestet’s “ranckes of better equipage,” while his speaking falsely and judging the poor are reflected in the poet’s “poore” lines, which in fact speak truth. A time when death will cover the bones with dust evokes the Committal from the Book of Common Prayer’s “Order for the Burial of the Dead,” “we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” itself an echo of Genesis 3.19, “For dust thou art, and into dust shalt thou be turned agayne” (BB). In the case of the youth’s surviving the poet, he might by chance (“by fortune”) once again “re-suruay” the poet’s lines (from super + videre = to look over); to ‘survey’ was used also when reckoning or inspecting lines of accounts). The self-deprecating nature of “These poore rude lines” was customary when addressing a patron. 2 His lines are the remnants or relicts of the youth’s “deceased Louer” which, as in Sonnet 31, means ‘friend’ rather than ‘lover’ in the modern sense.
The youth is instructed to “Compare” the poet’s lines with the “bett’ring of the time,” the advances poetry will make in the future. Although he will find the poet’s verses “out-stript” or surpassed by every subsequent “pen” (metonymically ‘poet’), he is instructed to preserve them (“Reserue,” which keeps its legal sense of a part of a contract or rent kept back – unlike Death that keeps all). He must keep the lines, not for the sake of the poet’s love, but for the sake of “their rime,” their poetic value, even if they rank less than the reputations of “happier men,” men of greater “fortune.”
The sestet echoes the vocabulary of petitions and suits and is again self-deprecatory (“voutsafe me but . . ”). The poet’s “louing thought,” put into the mouth of the youth, is this: ‘If my friend (the poet) had survived, if his Muse had continued to grow as this age progressed, then his love would have brought forth – the image is one of poetic childbirth – issue that is “dearer,” more treasured and more costly (not “poore”) than this poem.’ A poem of such worth would “march in ranckes of better equipage,” would be ranked amid “better” equipment than the weapons of the churl which are evil. The line brings together a number of strands: “equipage” was a military term for equipment, but came to include a sense of orderliness, both in ranks and vesture. Thus the poet’s literary tropes or verses, with their metrical feet in order, would be found marching in better company, a usage found in Marston’s The metamorphoses of Pigmalions image with its “stanzaes . . Which like Soldados of our warlike age, / March rich bedight in warlike equipage.” 3 Or the poet himself would be included in the register of subsequent and better poets, similar to the claim by Thomas Nashe for Thomas Watson, whose “Amintas . . may march in equipage of honour, with our ancient poets.” 4 Or, finally, the poet is evoking the equipage of a funeral procession in which retainers marched in ranks in full uniform, a frequent feature of elegies, compare John Ford’s instruction to the deceased Earl of Devonshire, “Then go great Montioy lustre of this age, / Pace still thy name in pompous equipage.” 5
The closing couplet awards the youth words that give assent to the poet’s earlier instruction, “Reserue them for my loue, not for their rime.” Since the poet has died and because the standard of poetry has improved (“Poets better proue”), the youth will read the lines of later poets for their literary quality, but will read those of the poet out of love for him (“his for his loue”).
32.1. From 1 Cor. 4.3, Vulgate, “ab humano die.”
32.2. Compare the opening lines of the Dedicatory Sonnet to The Tears of Fancie, “Goe Idle lines vnpolisht rude and base, / Unworthy words to blason beauties glory” (T.W. The Tears of Fancie. Or, Loue Disdained (London: William Barley, 1593).
32.3. John Marston, The metamorphosis of Pigmalions image. And certaine satyres (London: Iames Roberts, 1598) 24.
32.4. Thomas Nashe, Preface to Robert Greene, Menaphon Camillas alarum to slumbering Euphues, in his melancholie cell at Silexedra (London: T[homas] O[rwin], 1589) A1r.
32.5. John Ford, Fames Memoriall, Or The Earle of Deuonshire Deceased: With his honourable life, peacefull end, and solemne Funerall (London: Christopher Purset, 1606) B2v.