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Shakespeare Sonnet 17: “Who will believe my verse in time to come”

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 17: “Who will believe my verse in time to come”

The final sonnet in the "Marriage Sonnets” from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence sequence finds the speaker hoping to guard his own legacy. If the young man will do as the speaker suggests, the speaker's own veracity will be shielded. The entire sequence has presented a clever speaker employing a number of persuasive tactics to convince the young that marrying and springing off children is in the lad's best interest.

The speaker has dramatized any number of reasons that the young man should marry, among them and front and center has been the ability to remain a near immortal through those pleasant children the young man would engender, according to the speaker. Sonnet 17 is the last marriage sonnet of the "Marriage Sonnet" sequence; the speaker makes a final plea to the young man, urging him to produce offspring—this time for the sake of the speaker’s own veracity.

Shakespeare Sonnet 17: “Who will believe my verse in time to come”

Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, ‘This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.’
So should my papers, yellow’d with their age,
Be scorn’d, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice,—in it and in my rime*.

*Please note: In the original Shakespeare sonnets, the spelling of the poetic device is always "rime," as the first published edition in 1609 attests. The Shakespeare writer was composing his sonnets two centuries before Dr. Samuel Johnson erroneously introduced the spelling "rhyme" into English. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error."

Reading of Sonnet 17

Commentary

In the final sonnet from the "Marriage Sonnets" thematic group, the speaker is now showing concern for his own veracity. Thus, he is urging the young man to prove that the speaker is correct in his opinion regarding the happiness and status of the lad.

First Quatrain: Putting His Verse in Question

Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.

The speaker in Sonnet 17 begins his persuasion of the same young gentleman again, as he asks the young man to think about his future and consider that the speaker’s words will sound exaggerated to the ears of future generations. The speaker has lavished praise on the young man’s attributes, his "high deserts," and the speaker now notes that such praise may sound unbelievable, like blatant flattery, especially coming as it does in sonnet form. Yet the speaker insists that his sonnet is a mere "tomb," which cannot, in fact, do justice to the young man’s gifts.

The poem likely covers in fog the young man's life. The sonnet can hardly express "half your parts." Thus the speaker queries, "Who will believe my verse in time to come . . . ?" Again the speaker is seeking some convincing way to bring the young man to his way of thinking. As he has filled his little dramas with much cajoling and colorful scenes likening time to a tyrant and life as a battlefield, the speaker again asserts his poetic prowess to offer a useful argument to get the young man to marry and produce pleasing offspring.

Second Quatrain: Filling His Verse with Praise for the Lad's Beauty

If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, ‘This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.’

The speaker, in the second quatrain, continues his musings on the uselessness of filling his sonnet with the young man’s "beauty" and "heavenly touches." He claims that if he simply continues to fill his pieces with such things, the future generations will say that the speaker/sonneteer is a liar because no such amazing beauty has ever existed in a man. The speaker and the young man both know how pleasant and wonderful the lad is, but because the young man’s qualities are rare, it will be unlikely that those reading about him in future will be able to accept the facts of the lad's endowment. The speaker once again attempts to lead the young man to a conclusion about his duty to avoid such a fate.

Even as the speaker seems to be inserting himself and his sonnets into argument, he still very much places his emphasis on what the young man thinks. Although the lad may be somewhat vain, the speaker knows that the young man possesses empathy as well as physical beauty. The speaker again plays to the young man’s graceful inner qualities even as he stresses his outer physical attributes. The speaker knows that at times he has appeared to exaggerate the young man’s pleasing qualities, and now he hopes to capitalizes on the exaggeration.

Third Quatrain: Appealing to Vanity

So should my papers, yellow’d with their age,
Be scorn’d, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:

The speaker asserts to the young man that if his sonnetry is thought nothing but a bunch of lies, then the young man’s true attributes will be thought of as nothing more than the boasting of an old man, who was putting out only hot air without any truth. The young man’s qualities will come to nothing but the rantings of crazed poet who stretched the truth to fill is poems with lie after lie about the young man's beauty.

The speaker is banking on the young lad’s vain nature in following the speaker's argument and that the lad will feel compelled to do anything the speaker suggests to avoid having his pleasing qualities assigned to the dustbin of history as the imagination of a mad sonneteer.

The Couplet: So His Sonnets Will Ring True

But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice,—in it and in my rime.

Finally, the couplet squarely addresses the same issue: that the young man should marry and produce children so the lad will by doubly rendered immortal, both through his children and through the speaker's verse. If the young lad will only do his duty, follow the speaker's advice and marry and produce children, the problem will never perplex them.

Future generations will appreciate the fact that the young man was a pleasing, handsome man, and the speaker’s sonnet will contain the ring of truth that the speaker believes they possess. Thus, the speaker’s final installment becomes a double appeal that the young man marry and produce those lovely offspring and that he verify the speaker’s continued portrayal of the young man’s pleasing qualities.

Shakespeare Identified Lecture, Mike A'Dair And William J. Ray

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes