‘Sonnet 71,’ also known as ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead,’ is number seventy-one of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Bard’s well-known Fair Youth sequence of sonnets. These start with sonnet number one and run all the way through sonnet one hundred twenty-six. These poems are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day. There has been a great deal of speculation about who this young man could possibly be, but no single identity has ever been decided upon.
In ‘Sonnet 71’ Shakespeare explores themes common to his sonnets. These include death, afterlife, mourning, and relationships.
The speaker tells the youth directly that he doesn’t want the young man to spend a long time mourning him. As soon as the bells are done ringing he should stop feeling sad. The speaker doesn’t want the youth to feel any sorrow at all, even over his death. He goes on to tell the youth that it’s important for the youth to stop loving him after he’s dead too. Otherwise, people are going to be able to use that love against him.
‘Sonnet 71’ by William Shakespeare is a single stanza poem that contains fourteen lines the traditional number for a sonnet. It is also structured in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan) is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter means 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.
The last two lines (known as a couplet) are a rhyming pair. This is a feature that is common to all of Shakespeare’s poems. They often bring with them a turn or “volta” (in Italian) in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. This turn, as in Petrarchan sonnets, sometimes appears between the first eight lines and the second six.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 71’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, imagery, and enjambment. 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, “world” and “worms” in line four and “wise world” in line thirteen.
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. For example, the image of the speaker’s corpse leaving the “vile” living world and entering into one that is newly vile with “worms”.
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. For example, the transitions between all the lines of the first quatrain and lines five and six.
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 vildest worms to dwell:
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 71,’ the speaker begins by telling the Fair Youth what he should do after the speaker dies. It’s going to happen one day, as the focus on time in previous stanzas has proven. The youth should only mourn as long as the “surly sullen bell,” which marks the speaker’s funeral, is ringing. The bell will ring out in order to “Give warning to the world” that the speaker is gone and has entered into a new world where it is less “vile” but he dwells with the “vile” worms.
Once the sound has faded away, so too should the youth’s grief. This brief period of mourning is more than enough for the speaker who cares more for the youth’s happiness than his own memory.
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.
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 71,’ the speaker tells the youth that in the future when the speaker is dead and the youth is reading the lines that the speaker wrote, he hopes he won’t remember him. Rather, the youth should take simple pleasure in the lines themselves without worrying about who wrote them or where this person is now. The speaker doesn’t want the youth to think about him and “woe” or feel sorrow.
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.
In the final six lines of ‘Sonnet 71’, the speaker’s words take on a semi-colloquial diction. Shakespeare uses the phrase “O if, I say,” to mimic his speaker’s contemplation on the subject of death. He thinks of the youth and tells him that when he’s dead the youth is reading “this verse,” or this particular poem, that he should not “rehearse” or speak the speaker’s name. It should be lost in the “clay” as the speaker’s body is. The speaker wishes that the youth would let the “love” the youth holds for him “decay” along with the speaker’s corpse.
In the final two lines of the sonnet, the speaker says that if the youth doesn’t do this, then the world will use the speaker against him. In one way or another, which Shakespeare does not make clear, the speaker will be used to “mock” the youth or control him in some way. This is something that the speaker would like to avoid for the sake of the young man.