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.