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Shakespeare Sonnet 32: "If thou survive my well-contented day"

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

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 32: "If thou survive my well-contented day"

Shakespeare sonnet 32, from the thematic group, "The Muse Sonnets," in the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, personifies the sonnet, giving it the delicious power to read and understand the differences between form and content. The speaker is speculating that if some better poet comes along and outperforms the speaker with his poetic prowess, the addressee, the personified sonnet, should read the poem for the speaker’s love and read the other poets for their skill. This injunction placed on his addressee guarantees that his sonnets retain a high purpose: the repository of his love.

This speaker remains adamant that his works hold only the qualities of love, truth, and beauty. While he hopes his works will be read by the following generations, he is more interested in making his works as true to his feelings and thinking as possible. By addressing a personified sonnet and giving it the ability to read, he grounds himself in his own generation as he projects a possible failure into the future.

Sonnet 32: "If thou survive my well-contented day"

If thou survive my well-contented day
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripp’d by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rime*,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O! then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
But since he died, and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.’

*The Shakespeare writer was creating 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 Shakespeare Sonnet 32

Commentary

In Shakespeare sonnet 32, the speaker seems to project a more humble position than usual about his poems as he addresses his loved one, a personified sonnet.

First Quatrain: Hypothetically Speaking

If thou survive my well-contented day
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover

The first two quatrains of Shakespeare sonnet 32 are structured with if/then clauses: the first quatrain presents a hypothetical and the second presents what should follow. The "if" hypothetical is if his beloved sonnet should out live him, and the "then" is that the personified sonnet should re-read his poems a certain way.

The speaker begins by referring to the day he dies as "my well-contented day" indicating that he will be accepting of his demise. Still the poet/speaker calls death a "churl" and colorfully describes his post-death lot as his bones being dust covered. The speaker refers to his poems as, "[t]hese poor rude lines," and throughout the sonnet, seems to disparage his poetry.

Second Quatrain: Special Comparison/Contrast

Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripp’d by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rime,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.

If the speaker’s belovèd sonnet should outlive him and also if the poem happens to re-read his poem, he wants it to compare them to the poems of others, but if they are not as well crafted as others, it should, "[r]eserve them for [his] love, not for their rime." The speaker asks the personified sonnet to remember that his poems contain his heart and soul, so each poem should consider that fact above their technical skill. Such skill as this speaker's might be bested by "happier men," but his personal love for his talent, writing ability, and the sonnets is retained in, "[t]hese rude lines of thy deceased lover."

The speaker’s love for his sonnets, indeed all of his varied canon, is declared in virtually every piece of composition. He can even be seen fretting about his periods of writer’s block because of his obsession to write. Such periods become monumental areas for discovery, however, because this speaker retains his great love for his ability, and he knows he will pull out of whatever doldrums that are bound to visit him for time to time.

Third Quatrain: Repetition of Love

O! then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:

Then the speaker tells the lover-sonnet what to think, which takes up the rest of the poem, and instead of referring to the sonnet as a "lover," he employs the term "friend." But what he tells his lover/friend is essentially a repetition. The speaker wants the sonnet to have the opinion that if its poet/friend/lover had lived longer and his Muse had grown, his love poems could have been better and strong enough to compete "in ranks of better equipage."

The speaker is focusing on a premature death for himself. He believes that if he can live long enough, his talent will only grow stronger, but if he dies too soon, that talent will have remained at the same level he retains at the time he is now writing. If he makes his sonnet/reader aware of certain inevitable facts, he is sure that when the sonnet reads his works in future, it will take into consideration the fact that if the speaker had lived longer, he would have improved in his ability to create his little dramas.

The Couplet: No Room for Improvement in Skill

But since he died, and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.’

However, because the poet/friend died, and now there are far better poets, the personified sonnet will read the better poets for their prowess, but he admonished the sonnet to read its friend’s poems "for his love." Truthfully, this poem's skill may appear to denigrate his poems but in actuality, it once again lifts them to an extremely high position, as the poet covers himself lest, in fact, a better poet should come along after his departure from the earthly art scene.

The poem reveals not only the poet's skill that he so cherishes, but it also unveils a definite prescience that his art will never have to face worry over being out-performed; his stature is safe, and he is sure of it. He expects such to happen because of his genius in creating new, useful, entertaining, and enlightening scenarios filled with not only colorful language but also language that holds profundities of which most artists remain incapable.

Waxing Humble in the Face of Great Talent

As the earlier explication of this group of sonnets has emphasized, most of these poems remain dedicated to a celebration of the poet’s poetic talent, and often the speaker actually addresses the poem itself, as this one also does. The uniqueness of this sonnet is the personification of the sonnet itself. He creates in the personified sonnet the ability to read, in order to admonish the poem to read his sonnets with a certain purpose.

If the speaker is somehow outdone by the talent of stronger poets in the future, then the sonnet should read his poems only for the love they contain and then read other poets for their skill. By creating such a unique situation, the sonneteer is virtually guaranteeing that he will never be "outstripp’d by [any] pen." This speaker likes to cover his talent against any eventuality with his many layers of metaphoric and often metaphysical prowess.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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