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Shakespeare Sonnet 72: "O! lest the world should task you to recite"

Updated on May 3, 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 "William Shakespeare"
The real "William Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 72

There exists growing awareness of the controversy regarding the real writer of the Shakespearean works, both plays and sonnets. This controversy exists primarily in the world of literature, but thinkers in other fields are also becoming aware of its nature and impact. Many scholars and critics are convinced that Edward de Vere is the writer who actually composed the works attributed to "William Shakespeare." Thus the name "William Shakespeare" is, in fact, merely the pen name of the 17th Earl of Oxford.

This sonnet 72 is further support of that notion, that de Vere was using the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." Its theme demonstrates the desire of the sonnet’s speaker to have his works speak for themselves and not be influenced by the poet’s name.

Sonnet 72

O! lest the world should task you to recite
What merit lived in me, that you should love
After my death,—dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove;
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart:
O! lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
For I am sham’d by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth.

Reading of Sonnet 72

Commentary

The speaker/poet addresses his poem again, creating a drama about his death and advising the poem not to advertise the speaker/poet’s merit after he has departed.

First Quatrain: Distinguishing Self from Poem

O! Lest the world should task you to recite
What merit lived in me, that you should love
After my death,—dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove;

In Shakespeare sonnet 72, the speaker establishes a distinction between himself and his poems. He does not sanction the notion that his poetry will be a reflection of his own personal merit. He understands that as a flawed human being the art that results from his talent is greater than his idiosyncrasies.

The speaker realizes that after the death of an artist, that artist’s stock often rises considerably, and he does not want that to happen to him. He wants his art to shine for itself, not because of some imagined superior state of the poet.

Second Quatrain: No Fawning over Personality

Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart:

The concocting of "some virtuous lie" would serve only to elevate the poet above his poetic productions. He knows that his poems deserve great adulation for they reflect "[his] own desert." But to fawn over his personality and lavish "more praise" upon him after his death denigrates the truth that he has always aspired to dramatize and promote.

The speaker is forming his request as "don’t fawn over me when I’m dead, unless you want to diminish my poetry." As his readers have repeatedly experienced, this speaker is playing with language structure to produce original discourses. This speaker is, therefore, loath to have his creations upstaged by an emphasis on his personal life or personality. Such a desire remains the primary impetus for writers to engage noms de plume, stage names, or pen names.

Third Quatrain: Emphasis on Works not Poet

O! lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.

The speaker then provides further reasoning for keeping the emphasis on his works and not himself. The "true love" that he has consistently dramatized in his poem would appear "false in this." This speaker feels that his life remains quite humble and unassuming and in order to elevate his virtue, lies, or at best exaggerations, would have to be slipped into his eulogy.

This talented speaker, therefore, requests that "[his] name be buried with [his body]." His flawed human personality will, after his death and burial, no longer be present to "shame" his muse, his talent, or even other people. This insightful speaker insists that only his poetry be allowed to shine, without his flawed biography to co-opt it.

The Couplet: His Shames Do Not Write His Verse

For I am sham’d by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth.

The speaker admits that he has committed shames in his life, and if much is made of him after his death, his poetry will suffer in value. This speaker wishes to bury his personality so that his works can speak for themselves without critics and scholars attempting to account for the events with biography. In the early 20th century, a school of critical thought called the New Criticism took this very tact as its foundation.

New critics such as Allan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Cleanth Brooks believed that, "The reader does not need outside sources, such as the author’s biography, to fully understand a text." Edward de Vere would have agreed because as an aristocrat he would not have benefited by being linked to the lowly craft of writing sonnets and stage plays.

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."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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