sonnetLXXI

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
   Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
   And mock you with me after I am gone.

Sonnets 71 - 4 are a group which anticipate the poet's death and speculate on the memory which might remain after him in the mind of his beloved. It is appropriate that the group should be placed here, because, with 70 sonnets completed, the poet has figuratively reached the end of his alloted span of three score and ten years. Mortality therefore re-establishes itself as a prime and predominant actor in the pantomime of life.

Critics have noted the essential and inherent contradiction of this sonnet. You cannot read a poem which asks you to forget its writer, without at the same time having the memory of that writer continuously thrust into your thoughts. It is somewhat akin to the philosophical conundrum 'Do not read this sentence!'

 The poem need not however be interpreted as an ironic or absurd portrayal of turning the tables. Its primary message seems to be the depth of commitment in love that the writer experiences - it is a love which has no boundary, even to the extent of submitting itself to full and final annihilation, without even the lingering memory remaining of what he once was.

Two forces are opposed to each other in the poem, the force of love which knows no limits and would not have the beloved suffer one least pang on account of that love, and the force of memory which deepest love instils, which seeks to remain forever, even after death.

In the first quatrain the tolling of the death bell, which seems to recur with each passing line, is a forceful reminder of the love which survives after death, a reminder of the love which is and was. The conjuration not to mourn occurs at the beginning of the quatrain, and it is almost forgotten by the end of the four lines. It is therefore necessary to call on some other reasons to stop the woe, some other force, and this is found, where else, but in the love that the poet has for the youth. That love will insist that the youth is not allowed to suffer one jot of pain, and therefore he himself, the poet, must be forgotten as soon as he is gone.

The final couplet provides the clinching reason and justification for forgetting the loved one, but its essential weakness undermines it. To abandon precious memories simply because a few cynics in the world might laugh at them would be a poor and calculating response to love. Much more compelling are the reasons already advanced - I love you so, and I would not wish that memories of me might cause you pain.

The failure of the couplet forces us to re-examine its wider implications. Is the beloved youth likely to use this (the world's opinion) as an excuse not to value or to preserve his love? In fact sonnets 49, 57 & 58 have already suggested that this has already happened, so it would be no surprise to find that death brought no change. On the other hand there is nothing immediately nasty or cynical in these two lines - the focus is on the young man's grief (his moan) and the inevitable harshness and mockery of the world. The youth is mocked as much as the ageing poet (now dead). Therefore we are invited not to judge him too harshly. If we take the words of the poem at face value we are not to judge him harshly at all.

However some residue does remain of an impression that the poet's love is one- sided, and that the object of his love is somewhat shallow. Despite the speaker's protestations of unworthiness, and of the youth's sweetness, the reader has to modify the epithets, and to a certain extent reverse them. It is the poet's love which is sweet, lofty and everlasting, and the youth who is poor, unworthy, and liable to be forgotten.

The 1609 Quarto Version

NOe Longer mourne for me when I am dead,
Then you ſhall heare the ſurly ſullen bell
Giue warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vildeſt wormes to dwell:
Nay if you read this line,remember not,
The hand that writ it,for I loue you ſo,
That I in your ſweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then ſhould make you woe.
O if(I ſay)you looke vpon this verſe,
When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,
Do not ſo much as my poore name reherſe;
But let your loue euen with my life decay.
   Leaſt the wiſe world ſhould looke into your mone,
   And mocke you with me after I am gon.

Commentary

1. No longer mourn for me when I am dead

No longer = For no longer a period than etc. Normally the period of mourning would last for several weeks, more or less depending on the closeness of kin to the dead person.

2. Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

the surly, sullen bell - the death bell. Although frequently referred to in literature, it is seldom heard nowadays. The tenor bell of a peal is used, which is heavy and of a sombre tone. It was tolled at the rate of about one stroke every half minute, either before or immediately after a funeral service. For important people the death bell might be tolled once for each year of their life. For kings, once for each year of the reign. In a world in which noise was so much less than in our own, the sound of the death bell tolling was especially noticeable and memorable. All would have experienced hearing it. Even in London it would be heard above the sound of daily life. It is thought that Shakespeare paid for the bell to be rung at the funeral of his actor brother Edmund in 1607. (KDJ p.252.n1-2).
surly =
gloomy, melancholic, grudging.
Or if that surly spirit, melancholy,
Had baked thy blood and made it heavy-thick,
KJ.III.3.42-3.
sullen
= sombre, unresponsive, dull sounding.
Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news
Hath but a losing office, and his tongue
Sounds ever after as a sullen bell,
Remember'd tolling a departing friend.
2H4.I.1.100-4
The passing bell was supposedly rung at the hour of a person's death. OED gives, for 'passing bell' -‘The bell which rings at the hour of departure, to obtain prayers for the passing soul: often used for the bell which rings immediately after death’.   The next line possibly implies that the poet refers to the passing bell, rather than the bell tolled at burial.

3. Give warning to the world that I am fled

Give warning - the death bell was rung to notify the world of a death, but also as a memorial and a reminder of mortality. As in Donne's famous line: Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

4. From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
vile world - Sonnet 66 gives ample reasons for thinking the world a vile place.
with vilest worms - worms eat the body when it is buried in the ground. vildest (Q) is a variant form. Cremation is a 20th century practice, but inhumation was the usual practice for Elizabethans. Worms are mentioned by Shakespeare almost always in association with death.
....................shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
For fear of that, I still will stay with thee;
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again: here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chamber-maids; O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
RJ.V.3.102-110.
5. Nay, if you read this line, remember not

Nay - used as an introductory word (OED A.1.d.), but also as a word which denies or objects to a preceding statement. Here it could be taken to imply an expected protest on the part of the friend -'Of course I will remember you!  In any case I have your verses as reminders'.

6. The hand that writ it, for I love you so,

the hand that writ it = my hand that wrote these verses, hence me. Some at least of Shakespeare's sonnets circulated in manuscript long before they were published.
for I love you so - the simplicity and directness of the Anglo-Saxon words seems to underline the utter hopelessness and completeness of the self-abnegation, as well as the totality of the poet's all-consuming love.

7. That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

in your sweet thoughts - nothing can be sweeter than being in the thoughts of one's beloved. Even that delight the poet offers to relinquish. would be forgot = desire to be forgotten. forgot is an old form of the past participle.

8. If thinking on me then should make you woe.

should make you woe - might cause you distress, might make you sorrowful.

9. O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,

O! if, I say, - The interjection I say adds a further touch of pathos, by reminding the reader (and the youth) that this is not only a poem, not even primarily so, but that it is a personal testament, a cry from the heart, an appeal made in the intimacy of love's confidences.

10. When I perhaps compounded am with clay,

When I am intermingled with the clay in which I have been buried. HV draws attention to the progressive reduction of the lingering memory, which is not to be preserved, from me in the first line, to hand, then to this verse, then mere dust compounded with clay, and finally only a poor name. But even that last remnant of the poet must be forgotten.

11. Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;

Do not even repeat my name. poor emphasises the poet's sense of his own worthlessness. Even his name is poor. But there is also a suggestion that he is poor and wretched because of abandonment by the beloved.
reherarse = repeat, say over.

12. But let your love even with my life decay;

When my life ends, let your love end also. decay returns to the imagery of the tomb and the body's corruption. The advice offered is painful because of the lingering suspicion that it is not needed. The youth was going to forget him anyway.

13. Lest the wise world should look into your moan,

Lest = for fear that;
the wise world - ironic. There is a suggestion that the world is overwise, a busybody and a know-all, and that it is not wise at all.
should look into your moan = might investigate the cause of your sorrow. The prying world becomes like an Inquisition. moan is used elsewhere in the sonnets to signifiy sorrow. Compare:
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
30
and
Thou hast finished joy and moan.
Cym.IV.2.274.

14. And mock you with me after I am gone.

mock you with me = mock you on account of your friendship with me (and on account of my unworthiness); mock you and me together.