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

Updated on December 12, 2017
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.

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 this issue.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

Introduction: The Vital Power of the Soul

As readers have seen many times before, themed sequences are contained in the 154 sonnet group. Such is the case with Sonnet 74, which is a companion to sonnet 73.

In sonnet 73, the speaker metaphorically dramatizes the aging process to emphasize the nature of strong love and its preservation in art: "This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou must leave ere long."

Sonnet 74 begins with the coordinating conjunction "but" to signal its connection to sonnet 73.

Reading of Sonnet 74

First Quatrain: "But be contented: when that fell arrest"

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.

Second Quatrain: "When thou reviewest this, thou dost review"

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 thought 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.

Third Quatrain: "So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life"

The speaker then comforts this beloveds, among them is muse, that after the speaker has departed his body, those beloveds 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 make it "too base" "to be remembered."

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: "The worth of that is that which it contains"

The couplet, "The worth of [the body] is that which it contains, / And that is this, and this with thee remains," plainly declares that the only value of the body is that it contains the soul.

And this speaker has put his soul in his art, which will continue to provide sustenance for all those other souls who may read his creations, including those family and friends who will mourn his loss.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

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 (Erroneously "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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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