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Shakespeare Sonnet 81: "Or I shall live your epitaph to make"

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 81: "Or I shall live your epitaph to make"

In sonnet 81 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker addresses his poem, as he often does. In this sonnet, the speaker is celebrating his gifts and offering a magnificent, glowing tribute to the poems themselves. This speaker has often extolled the virtue of his own poetry because he is certain his creative compositions will live long after he has shuffled off the mortal coil. Now the speaker chooses to place the poems themselves, indeed he even gives a nod to his plays, in the spotlight and shower on them the immortality that the feels they will experience.

Sonnet 81: "Or I shall live your epitaph to make"

Or I shall live your epitaph to make
Or you survive 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 immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live,—such virtue hath my pen,—
Where breath most breathes,—even in the mouths of men.

Reading of Sonnet 81

Commentary

Sonnet 81 offers a glowing tribute to the speaker’s poems. He often extols the virtue of his own poetry because he is certain it will live long after he is gone.

First Quatrain: Posing Two Ideas

Or I shall live your epitaph to make
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.

In the first quatrain, the speaker proposes two ideas: he will live to write the epitaph for his poetry, or his poetry will outlive him. The speaker chooses to believe and act on the latter because "From hence your memory death cannot take."

Even though the speaker, who lives in a physical body, must eventually die, death cannot take away his sonnets once he has written them. While the writer of the sonnets will be forgotten, the works themselves will remain eternally.

Second Quatrain: Naming His Art

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.

After having finished composition of each sonnet, the speaker/poet christens the work, giving it a name, and he confidently proclaims "your name from hence immortal life shall have." This speaker has often shown his confidence in his talent, and he has often demonstrated his heavy reliance on his poetic muse.

The speaker then remarks that while his earthly flesh must be buried in that earth, his sublime poetry will live "in men’s eyes." The interesting metaphor of likening the poetry to the entombed body generates the opposite reality. The poetry is not "entombed" but is full of vibrant life.

Third Quatrain: Poetic Monument

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;

The poetry will be a monument to the poet, but more importantly, it will be a monument to itself. The speaker calls his poetry "gentle verse." And the speaker then indicates that it is being written for "eyes not yet created." The speaker often projects his thoughts far into the future.

Not only will eyes play lovingly over this speaker's "gentle verse," but also "tongues to be your being shall rehearse." The speaker/poet seems to be referring not only to his sonnets but also to his plays, which, of course, continue even today to be performed world-wide.

The Couplet: Art Outliving Artist

You still shall live,—such virtue hath my pen,—
Where breath most breathes,—even in the mouths of men.

The speaker dramatizes the future of his poems in the couplet: "You still shall live,—such virtue hath my pen,— / Where breath most breathes,—even in the mouths of men." When all the people who are living at the time of the speaker have vanished, he is confident that his poetic works "still shall live." It is by "virtue" of his "pen" that such a phenomenon can occur. He believes the poems as they will be spoken and read by future generations will have even more life than he could ever envision.

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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