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

Updated on April 23, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real Shakespeare
The real Shakespeare | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 32

Shakespeare sonnet 32, unlike most of the poems in "The Writer/Muse Sonnets 18-126" sequence, does feature another person to whom the speaker addresses his discourse.

The purpose of the discourse, however, still remains the issue of his writing ability. In this poem, the speaker states that if some other poet comes along whose skill outperforms his own, the addressee should read his poem for his love and other poets for their skill. This injunction placed on his addressee guarantees that his sonnets retain a high purpose: the repository of his love.

Sonnet 32

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.’

(Please note: The Shakespeare writer did not make a mistake in the fifth line of this sonnet. The spelling, "rhyme," was not used until the 18th century when Dr. Samuel Johnson erroneously introduced that spelling into English. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 32

Commentary

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

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 should out live him, and the “then” is that she 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, “These 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 should outlive him and also if she happens to re-read his poem, he wants her to compare them to the poems of others, but if they are not as well crafted as others, she should, “Reserve them for [his] love, not for their rime.”

The speaker asks her to remember that they contain his heart and soul, so she 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 her is retained in, “These rude lines of thy deceased lover.”

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

Then the speaker tells the lover what to think, which takes up the rest of the poem, and instead of referring to her as a “lover,” he employs the term “friend.” But what he tells her is essentially a repetition.

The speaker wants her have the opinion that if her 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 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 her poet/friend died, and now there are far better poets, she will read the better poets for their prowess, but she will read her 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.

Waxing Humble in the Face of Great Talent

As the earlier explication of this group of sonnets has emphasized, most of these poems have been dedicated to a celebration of the poet’s poetic talent, and often the speaker actually addresses the poem itself.

This one still celebrates that poetic talent although it does address a belovèd, whose presence serves only as a kind of backdrop against which the poet can make his seemingly humble remarks about his “poor rude lines.”

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 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.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

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.

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."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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