Sonnet 71

Shakespeare Sonnet 71

NOe Longer mourne for me when I am dead,
Then you ſhall heare the ſurly ſullen bell
Giue warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vildeſt wormes to dwell:
Nay if you read this line, remember not,
The hand that writ it, for I loue 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 looke vpon this verſe,
When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,
Do not ſo much as my poore name reherſe;
But let your loue euen with my life decay.
Leaſt the wiſe world ſhould looke into your mone,
And mocke you with me after I am gon.

Sonnets 71 and 72 comprise the sequence’s second pair of epitaphial sonnets (after Sonnets 31 and 32, see Sonnet 31 commentary), placed here seemingly because the poet has completed his climacteric threescore sonnets and ten and now presents to the youth appropriate obsequial verses. Sonnet 71 draws on familiar phrases from the Book of Common Prayer’s “Order for the Burial of the Dead” and on passages from the Book of Job, which the “Order” uses, particularly those recited as a versicle during the funeral procession, “For I am sure that my redeemer saueth, and he shall rayse vp at the latter day them that lye in the dust. And though after my skinne the [wormes] destroy this body, yet shall I see God in my fleshe” (19.23-6; BB).

A negative imperative opens the sonnet: when the poet is dead, the youth is ordered not  to mourn for him any longer than (“Then”) he will hear tolling the “surly sullen bell.” (An initial reading might suggest, wrongly, a temporal contrast, “when I am dead, / Then you shall heare.”) The tone of “surly” is one of arrogant summons (“surly” meaning ‘morose’ is a later usage), while “sullen” suggests a gloomy note or tone (compare 2H4 1.1.101-3, “and his Tongue, / Sounds euer after as a sullen Bell / Remembred, knolling a departing Friend”). Since the passing bell was tolled only briefly – its strikes corresponded to the departed’s age – a very short period is indicated. As well, the bell’s function differs from the customary, because it is a “warning” bell to the world that the poet has “fled / From this vile world with vildest wormes to dwell;” “vildest,” a variant of ‘vilest,’ is an occasional Shakespearean spelling and recalls the prayer in the “Order for the Burial of the Dead” asking Christ to “change our vile body,” when “earth shalbe cast vpon the body.” To dwell with worms was man’s proper lot, in Job’s words, “How much more man, a worme, euen the sonne of man, which is but a worme?” (25.6; GV).

If the friend were to read this verse (“this line”) after the poet’s death, then he is instructed to “remember not, / The hand that writ it,” to dismiss all thought of the poet and his writing. The line throws weight on “for I loue you so,” each individual syllable requiring a single stress. Given the strength of his love he would not have the friend moved to sadness: he would prefer to be removed from the friend’s “sweet thoughts,” if the youth were to be afflicted (“make you woe”) by remembering the poet (“thinking on me then”). Again he envisages the friend looking on his lines (“O if (I say) you looke vpon this verse”) after his death (“When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay”);  “perhaps” implies a lesser possibility; “compounded am with clay,” drawing on Job’s definition of bodies as “houses of clay . . whose foundation is but dust” (4.19; BB), pictures the poet’s “house of clay” mixed with the clay of the earth. The poet requires that the youth not allow the poet’s “poore name” (in Elizabethan times also a ‘recently deceased name’) to pass his lips (“reherse,” with its allusion to the funeral edifice, to which titles and verses were attached). He seeks to spare the friend the lot of the psalmist, who is but a worm and subject to mockery, “I am a worme and no man: a very scorne of men” (Ps. 22.6-7; BB), or that of Job whom the “wise men” famously derided (cf. Job 5.13 & 34.2) and who complains, “the graue is readie for me. There are none but mockers with me” (17.1-2; GV). The friend’s sorrow must die to prevent the “wise world” from enquiring of it (“looke into your mone”). He will then avoid being mocked either together with or because of the poet after his departure (“And mocke you with me after I am gon”).

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