‘Sonnet 32,’ also known as ‘If thou survive my well-contented day’ is number thirty-two of one hundred fifty-four that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six). This particular poem is one of several that deals primarily with themes of writing and love. The tone is melancholy throughout as the speaker considers the future and the impact his writing may or may not have.
In the lines of this particular sonnet Shakespeare’s speaker, who is likely the poet himself, acknowledges the weaknesses in his writing. He figures that he’ll die before the Fair Youth does and that after his death the youth might return to read the poems again. If this is the case, then he hopes that he’ll still enjoy and keep them, even if much better poets than he are writing in that contemporary future. The poem concludes with the speaker contemplating the youth’s words. He thinks that the youth will hopefully read his poems for his love and read others for their style.
‘Sonnet 32’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line “Shakespearean” or English sonnet. This means that the poem is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines. They follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and are written in iambic pentameter. This metrical pattern requires that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 32’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and imagery. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “height” and “happier” in line eight and “grown” and “growing” in line ten.
Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. There is a powerful image in the second line of the poem where the speaker is discussing his death, the decomposition of his body, and the dust that will cover his bones. It is made all the more impactful for the use of alliteration in that line as well.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples in this poem, for instance, the transition between lines three and four as well as that between lines eleven and twelve.
If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceasèd lover,
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 32,’ the speaker begins with a discussion of life, death, and writing. He directs his words to the Fair Youth about whom he has written numerous sonnets and will write more. These have depicted out his love for the young man, the wonder he feels at his presence, and his concern about the future. In these lines, he tells the Fair Youth that if he survives him, then maybe one day he will “once more re-survey” these lines of poetry that were written for him. This will be at a time when death will have covered the speaker’s bones with dust, he’ll be long dead. The speaker refers to his now poetry as “poor rude lines”. It is clear that he doesn’t think much of his own writing. Shakespeare emphasizes this in the second quatrain.
Compare them with the bett’ring of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 32,’ the speaker predicts that the youth will compare the sonnets written for him to those written after the speaker’s death. The latter, the speaker believes, will be far superior. There are poets in that future who can write better than the speaker can, but the speaker hopes that the youth will keep his poems close. He hopes that the youth will “Reserve,” or keep the poems. If only for the speaker’s true love, if not for their skill or “rhyme”.
O then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
“Had my friend’s muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought
To march in ranks of better equipage.
But since he died and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.”
The youth should “vouchsafe” or grant the speaker, “this loving thought”. This phrase is followed by a colon, symbolizing the thought that the youth should have. The youth should think that if his “friend” had been alive in that contemporary future, then things would’ve been different. His powerful love would’ve “brought / to march in ranks of better equipage”. The poet uses language associated with armaments and soldiers in order to symbolize the creation of better poetry.
In the last two lines of ‘Sonnet 32,’ the speaker concludes the poem. He predicts that the youth will say that he’ll read the other poets for their “style” and the speaker’s poetry for “his love”. This is a fair conclusion, the speaker thinks.