‘Sonnet 72,’ also known as ‘O lest the world should task you to recite,’ is number seventy-two of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote over his lifetime. It is the second part of a double sonnet, which began in ‘Sonnet 71’. Both of these sonnets are in Shakespeare’s famous 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.
‘Sonnet 72’ deals with many similar themes to those found in ‘Sonnet 71’. These include the passage of time, love, death, and legacy.
The speaker tells the youth that once he has died that the youth shouldn’t try to defend him. There will be those who might question the youth’s love for the speaker, when this happens the youth should forget the speaker’s name and pretend their love never existed. This way, he won’t corrupt the real love they shared by saying something false. In the last lines the speaker says that he feels ashamed of how he’s lived his life and what he’s done. He insinuates that the youth should feel ashamed of loving the speaker who is worth so little.
‘Sonnet 72’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line, single stanza poem. It is 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.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines (known as a couplet) are a rhyming pair. 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.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 72’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, allusion, and enjambment. The latter, enjambment, 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 transition between lines one and two as well as that between lines seven and eight.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. There are numerous allusions in this sonnet to themes present in the previous sonnet, ‘Sonnet 71’. In both, the speaker alludes to his death, what the Fair Youth should do after he’s gone, and his perceived unworthiness. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “death, dear” in line three and “devise,” “do,” and “desert” in lines five and six.
O lest the world should task you to recite
What merit lived in me that you should love
After my death, dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove;
The first lines of ‘Sonnet 72’ pick up where ‘Sonnet 71’ left off. The speaker is trying to predict the various things that could happen after he’s passed away. He has already informed the youth in the previous sonnet that he doesn’t want the young man to mourn him after he’s dead. Now, he is dwelling on the possibility that the youth will be challenged in the future on why he loved the speaker. If this is the case, the youth just “forget me quite,” the speaker says. The youth shouldn’t even try to defend the speaker because, as he says, there is nothing “worthy prove”.
Often in these sonnets, the speaker declares himself less worthy of the youth than he should be. This is one fo those cases. He believes there is nothing about him that is defendable.
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceasèd I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart.
The only way that the youth could say something that would make his love of the speaker seem correct would be if the youth came up with “some virtuous lie” (an example of an oxymoron). This is something that would make the speaker sound better than he was. It would “hang more praise” on the speaker, now “deceasèd” than he ever had in life. The truth is much more brutal than the youth’s possible lie.
O lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth.
In the second half of the sonnet, the speaker goes on to say that if the youth does make false statements on the speaker’s behalf he’ll be ruining the true love that they shared while he was alive. It will make that real love seem false.It is his desire that his name “be buried where” his “body is”. Then, there won’t be any “shame” brought on the youth by his association with the speaker.
In the last two lines of ‘Sonnet 72,’ the speaker concludes by saying that he is “shamed” or “ashamed” of what he has done or brought “forth” in life. He believes that the youth should be too for loving “things nothing worth”. It is interesting to contrast this sonnet, and the previous, with those in which the speaker is chastising the youth for his misdeeds. Despite the speaker’s faithfulness and seeming good nature, he feels as though he is worth much less than the youth is.