But be contented when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch's knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.
This is the last of the quartet of sonnets which deals with old age and death. Finally the possibility of survival assumes a spiritual dimension. The fact that Time with his crooked knife can take all away is somehow alleviated by the persistence of the 'better part of me' which triumphs over the body's death. The poem links to many others in the series, especially those which deal with the unity of lovers, for here the poet's spirit is also the beloved's, and his spirit manifests itself in his verse, which will be a monument and a memorial for all time. Thus the miracle is achieved, that the dull substance of his flesh, no more worthy than the coward conquest of a wretch's knife, becomes transformed into the magic of eternal verse which conquers death and allows love to flourish where it seemed to be destroyed by death.
The imagery of this sonnet probably depends on two important Christian doctrines, transubstantiation and Resurrection. The latter is quite evident in the contrast between the body, the dregs of life, the prey of worms, and the spirit which survives and 'remains' after death. The doctrine of transubstantiation is brought in by the transformation of the mere lines of verse into the absolute essence of the man, the miracle of making physical substance into something spiritually profound. The miraculous transformation mirrors the point in the communion known as 'the consecration of the host', when the bread of the host is transformed into the body of Christ, from which all derive spiritual life. The link is perhaps tenuous, but given the proximity of the ideas of eternal life achieved through drinking from the Pierian Spring of the Muses or partaking of the spiritual bread and wine of Christianity, and the fact that Shakespeare's language in the sonnets often echoes Holy Scripture, it is far from being fantastic.
The 1609 Quarto Version
BVt be contented when that fell areſt,
With out all bayle ſhall carry me away,
My life hath in this line ſome intereſt,
Which for memoriall ſtill with thee ſhall ſtay.
When thou reueweſt this,thou doeſt reuew,
The very part was conſecrate to thee,
The earth can haue but earth,which is his due,
My ſpirit is thine the better part of me,
So then thou haſt but loſt the dregs of life,
The pray of wormes,my body being dead,
The coward conqueſt of a wretches knife,
To baſe of thee to be remembred,
The worth of that,is that which it containes,
And that is this, and this with thee remaines.