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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.

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

In sonnet 81, 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

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel: "When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text." APA does not address literary issues.

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.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Shakespeare Authorship / Crackpot to Mainstream

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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