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Shakespeare Sonnet 74: "But be contented: when that fell arrest"

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

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 74: "But be contented: when that fell arrest"

Sonnet 74 begins with the coordinating conjunction "but" to signal its connection to sonnet 73, as the speaker insists that despite life’s brevity and finality, art can act as a kind of defense again annihilation.

If the speaker can portray his life, his loves, his interests honestly and clearly enough, he will in a sense be creating for his life a kind of immortality that the purely physical level of being can never emulate. The very spirit of art is what lives on after the death of the artist, whose spirit is captured in that art, if the artist has genuine talent and the ability to fulfill its promise.

Themed sub-sequences appear in the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence. Such is the case with Sonnet 74, which is a companion to sonnet 73 and sonnet 75. In sonnet 73, the speaker metaphorically dramatizes the aging process to emphasize the nature of deep love and its preservation in art: Knowing that life on the physical level exists only briefly renders the ability to love and capture its qualities in art even more intense.

Sonnet 74: "But be contented: when that fell arrest"

But be contented: when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have 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 prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.

Reading of Sonnet 74

Commentary

Sonnet 74 continues with one more installment in this sub-sequence and then closes on the theme of Sonnet 73, which has included a focus on the aging and final death of the poet/speaker.

First Quatrain: Continuing the Thought

But be contented: when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.

The speaker thus continues from the previous sonnet telling his listener to "be contented" even though they must be parted by the speaker’s death. The speaker emphasizes the inevitability of "that fell arrest" which will "carry [him] away." He uses a legal metaphor saying there will be no "bail" to get him released from that arrest.

The speaker then opens the discussion to the possibility of a kind of immortality in which the body cannot participate but his greater self, the soul, can. And, of course, that immortality resides in the hands of his mighty talent which assists him in creating his little sonnet dramas.

The urgency of creating his bits of immortality continues to drive the speaker further into his adventure with art. Becoming aware of his considerable talent can never be enough; he knows he must engage that talent with all the strength he has. The speaker is convinced that his very soul depends on his ability to fulfill its destiny.

Second Quatrain: Part of the Planet

When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:

In the second quatrain, the speaker then avers that his body is simply a part of the earth, and the earth deserves to take it back. But he is more than earth; he is spirit and that cannot be taken from him, nor can it be taken from his loved ones.

This speaker's love has been sculpted into his written creations, and he knows that they are issuing from his immortal soul. So even though his physical encasement must perish, he takes great comfort in knowing that he has left behind him great expressions of himself in his written works.

The speaker’s genuinely heartfelt desires continue to motivate him in his works. Even his dry spells will not allow him to rest; he pushes on despite all obstacles. Immortality becomes a shining star upon which he has precisely focused his attention.

This dedicated speaker knows that it takes honesty, sincerity, and perseverance applied along with his considerable talent to create the kinds of works that will outlive him and continue to honor his efforts.

Third Quatrain: The Base Body

So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.

The speaker then comforts his belovèds, among them his muse, that after the speaker has departed his body, those belovèds will have lost only the "dregs of life." The physical body is nothing more than the "prey of worms." Death has dominion over the physical body, and that dominion renders the physical encasement "too base" "to be remembered."

Of the three bodies carried by each human being—causal, astral, and physical, sometimes narrowed down to merely spiritual and physical—this speaker has become cognizant that the physical body is the least of importance, while the other bodies are the ones that will remain attached to the soul until soul-liberation from them.

This notion harkens back to sonnet 72 as the speaker commanded that his name be buried with his body. He insists that loss of the gross body is not to be lamented.

This speaker retains the assurance that the mental and spiritual levels of being far outweigh in value that of the mere physical. While the physical body and the mental levels serve as instruments, it is the immortal, ever conscious, eternal soul that is responsible for the best part of him: his prowess in composition.

The Couplet: Soul in Art

The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.

The couplet forcefully declares that the only value of the body is that it contains the soul. And this speaker has placed his soul into his art, which will continue to provide sustenance for all those other souls who may read

Premier World Poet: Knowledge and Talent

The remarkable knowledge that this speaker continues to reveal demonstrates why the writer of the Shakespeare canon has become known as the premier world poet. His skill is nearly flawless as he crafts his works with each word exactly in the place where it belongs.

Knowledge plus skill are the two necessary tools for all art. Without a balance and harmony of those two useful tools, a would-be poet becomes a mere poetaster. The Shakespeare writer demonstrates that balance and harmony in every poem and every play that he produces. His facility with language can teach anyone who wishes to accept its instruction.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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