Sonnet 74

Shakespeare Sonnet 74

BVt be contented when that fell areſt,
With out all bayle ſhall carry me away,
My life hath in this line ſome intereſt,
Which for memoriall ſtill with thee ſhall ſtay.
When thou reueweſt this, thou doeſt reuew,
The very part was conſecrate to thee,
The earth can haue but earth, which is his due,
My ſpirit is thine the better part of me,
So then thou haſt but loſt the dregs of life,
The pray of wormes, my body being dead,
The coward conqueſt of a wretches knife,
To baſe of thee to be remembred,
The worth of that, is that which it containes,
And that is this, and this with thee remaines.

Sonnet 74 continues the memorial topos of Sonnets 71 and 72 before the intervention of Sonnet 73. Its conclusion that, “The worth of that, is that which it containes,” modifies Sonnet 72’s claim that the youth will in the poet “nothing worthy proue.” The sonnet draws on Ovid’s celebrated claim to ongoing fame at the end of Metamorphoses: ‘When that day arrives, to which is due (“ius habet”) nothing but this body . . I will be carried with the everlasting better part of me (“parte meliore mei perennis”) above the high stars.’ 1 The youth is instructed to “be contented;” “contented” means ‘satisfied,’ but the sense of a debt or something “due” being ‘contented’ or ‘paid’ is also implied (compare Oth. 3.1.1, “Masters, play heere, I wil content your paines”). Death is pictured as a jailer (“fell arest”), who will lock away the poet with no possibility of release from custody, even on payment of a surety (“With out all bayle”). As in Sonnet 64.1, “times fell hand,” “fell” means ‘pitiless’ or ‘dire,’ the whole metaphor being reminiscent of Hamlet’s dying phrase, “this fell Sergeant death / Is strick’d in his Arrest” (Ham. 5.2.328-9).

The poet maintains that his life retains some title (“interest”) in this sonnet (“in this line”), whose purpose is to stay with the friend as a memorial (“for memoriall”). When he comes to “reuew” it, he will over-read or look over, “The very part was consecrate to thee:” “consecrate” is both ‘dedicated’ and ‘made blessed by’ and is appropriate, because monuments and burial-grounds were customarily hallowed. The admission that, “The earth can haue but earth, which is his due,” echoes the Committal from the Book of Common Prayer’s “Order for the Burial of the Dead,” “I commend thy soul to God . . and thy body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” which draws on Genesis, “thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou returne” (3.19; GV). Here the earth is “due” or entitled only to his bodily part (Ovid’s “corporis huius ius habet”). The next line is ambiguous: “the better part of me” (Ovid’s “parte meliore mei”), that part unconfined by death or time, qualifies either “thine,” the youth (as in Sonnet 39.2, “thou art all the better part of me”), or, following Ovid more closely, qualifies the poet’s “spirit:” his ‘soul,’ or ‘the seat of his love,’ or his ‘creative power,’ is owed to the friend. The Ovidian subtext underwrites his claim that his “better part” will prevail beyond death, as will this memorial.

The friend will, then, have only lost the poet’s body, the “dregs of life,” or the dross that remains after the spirit is distilled or taken off (compare Golding’s “dregs of earthly filth”). 2 His dead body will be “pray to wormes,” echoing, as in Sonnet 71, Job’s words, “My fleshe is clothed with wormes and dust of the earth,” and, “the sonne of man, which is but a worme” (7. 5 & 25.6; GV). His body is pictured as “The coward conquest of a wretches knife.” The ‘wretch’ is death or time (in Sonnet 100.14 time wields a “crooked knife”), who stalks his victim, his “conquest,” in a cowardly and unseen way. “To base of thee to be remembred” is a further unattached clause: either the poet’s gross body is not sufficiently noble (“To base”) to be remembered by the friend, or the “wretches knife,” with its base action, should not be recalled by him.

The couplet works from the general to the particular: the worth of anything (“The worth of that”) flows only from what “it containes.” What is contained here is the poem and its contents, the poet’s spirit and its issue (“this”), and it is this poem that will remain with the friend.


74.1. Ovid, Met. 15.873-5, “cum volet, illa dies, quae nil nisi corporis huius / ius habet . . parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis / astra ferar.” See Golding 15.985-9, “Let comme that fatall howre / Which (saving of this brittle flesh) hath over mee no powre . . / Yit shall the better part of mee assured bee to clyme / Aloft above the starrye skye.”

74.2. Golding 1.78.

74.3. The phrase, the ‘remains of the dead,’ is an 18th century usage.