OR I fhall liue your Epitaph to make,
Or you ſuruiue 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 immortall life ſhall haue,
Though I (once gone) to all the world muſt dye,
The earth can yeeld me but a common graue,
When you intombed in mens eyes ſhall lye,
Your monument ſhall be my gentle verſe,
Which eyes not yet created ſhall ore-read,
And toungs to be, your beeing ſhall rehearſe,
When all the breathers of this world are dead,
You ſtil ſhal liue (ſuch vertue hath my Pen)
Where breath moſt breaths, euen in the mouths of men.
Sonnet 81, the final epitaphial sonnet, is also the last of the climacteric sonnets, as the poet envisages a time when either he or the friend has completed this life. Thomas Wright describes 81 as the most “perillous” of the nonary climacterics, “They number them also by nine, and so make eighty one, the most perillous as comprehending nine times nine.” 1
Sonnet 81 moves towards the topos of poetic immortality. The poet’s claim that his “gentle verse” will be a “monument,” evoking once more the loci classici of Horace and Ovid (see Sonnets 55-65 inter alia), was standard among sonneteers, compare Spenser, Amoretti 69.8-9, “Euen this verse vowd to eternity / shall be thereof immortall moniment,” and Drayton, Idea 48.9-14 with its ovidian echoes,
And though in youth, my youth vntimely perrish,
To keepe thee from obliuion and the graue,
Ensuing ages yet my rimes shall cherrish,
When I entomb’d my better part shall saue;
And though this earthly bodie fade and die,
My name shall mount vpon eternitie. 2
The sonnet’s opening, “Or” can be read either with Sonnet 80’s final “Or” in mind, or as ‘Whether . . Or,’ or as ‘Either . . Or.’ The first proposal is that the poet will survive the youth, so that he will be able “your Epitaph to make,” where an “Epitaph” (’επι + ταφος = upon + grave) is writing on a tomb, while “make” was used technically of poetic endeavour (from ποιειν = to make). The alternative, as in Sonnet 32.1, is that the youth will “suruiue” the poet as he lies “rotten” in the earth, echoing its epicedial source in Job, “And I as a rotten thing do consume away” (13.28; BB).
“From hence” (either ‘from this moment’ or ‘from where your name is recorded’) death cannot “take” away the memory of the youth, even if each part of the poet, lying dis-membered in the ground, will go unremembered (“forgotten”); “from hence” (‘from this moment’ or ‘from this place’) the name of the youth “immortall life shall haue.” The poet’s epitaph will prevent the youth’s name from being effaced, a claim made by Ovid whose name will not be wiped away (“nomenque erit indelibile nomen”). 3 Once the poet has “gone,” however, he will be unrecorded and forgotten by the whole world: “to all the world must dye.” The earth will award (“yeeld”) him, as dividend or harvest, only “a common graue,” a grave proper to a commoner (albeit one who writes “gentle verse”), or a grave without a headstone, betokening anonymity. The youth, however, through the poet’s verse will be “intombed in mens eyes,” where “intombed” means both ‘entombéd’ or ‘contained’ in their eyes, and homophonically ‘entoméd,’ thus ‘recorded in their eyes as in a tome” or as something read. The youth’s “monument” will be the poet’s “gentle verse.” It will be “o’er-read,” ‘read over’ with a hint of repetition, by “eyes not yet created,” where “created” recalls the earlier “make.” Similarly tongues, as yet unborn (“toungs to be”), will “rehearse” the youth’s being: “rehearse” primarily intends ‘say over’ or ‘pronounce aloud,’ but as in all epitaphial sonnets, the funeral hearse to which trophies and verses were fixed is evoked as well as the idea of “numbered” as in Sidney’s translation of the elegaic Ps. 22.11, “My bones might be rehearsed”).
Either the end of line 11 or line 12 requires a grammatical stop.“When all the breathers of this world are dead” can be construed either as ‘when all those now breathing are dead’ or, in keeping with the idea of immortality, ‘when all who have lived in this world are dead.’ Until such time the youth “still shall liue,” because of the power of the poet’s pen (“such vertue hath my Pen”). His continuance in the poet’s verse will be spoken aloud in men’s mouths, the closer to the mouth, the stronger or louder the pronouncement. Shakespeare has imitated Ovid’s claim about his “opus,” that concludes the Metamorphoses: ‘while the power of Rome prevails,’ Ovid asserts, ‘I will be read in the mouths of men’ (“ore legar populi”). 5 Shakespeare’s contemporaries, finally, would not have missed the associative use of “Pen” as a feather held close to the mouth to determine the strength of the breath or whether life was present.
81.1. Wright, Clymactericall 3-4.
81.2. Michael Drayton, Idea 48 in The Barrons Wars in the raigne of Edward the second. With Englands Heroicall Epistles (London: I[ames] R[oberts], 1603) Q3v.
81.3. Ovid, Met. 15.876.
81.4. See Sidney, Philip and Sidney, Mary, The Psalms of Sir Philip Sidney and The Countess of Pembroke, ed. J.A.C. Rathmell (New York: Doubleday, 1963) 47.42.
81.5. Ovid, Met. 15.878; see Sonnet 55 for a lengthier treatment.