Sonnet 74: But be contended: when that fell arrest by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 74,’ also known as ‘But be contended: when that fell arrest,’ is number seventy-four of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote over his lifetime. This particular sonnet and those which are numbered 1-126 belong to Shakespeare’s famous Fair Youth sequence.

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 74’ picks up where ‘Sonnet 73’ left off, discussing the speaker’s age, the passage of time, and the strength of the youth’s love. 

 

Summary of Sonnet 74 

‘Sonnet 74’ by William Shakespeare is an interesting and moving poem that speaks on the power of writing to support one’s soul after death.

Throughout the fourteen lines of this sonnet, the speaker describes how things are going to change after he dies. His argument boils down to the simple fact that his body will be returned to the earth but his soul won’t. The speaker comforts the Fair Youth by telling him that after he dies his soul is going to remain in his writing. 

 

Structure of Sonnet 74

‘Sonnet 74’ by William Shakespeare is a single stanza poem that is made up of fourteen lines. It is a good example of the English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan). This form requires that the sonnet be 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. They often, but not always, 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.

 

Poetic Techniques in Sonnet 74 

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 74’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and metaphor. The latter is the most important technique at work in this sonnet. Throughout the fourteen lines, the speaker describes how his spirit, his soul, the best parts of his life, are going to be contained within the lines of his poetry. So, when he’s dead and the speaker reads this sonnet and others he will be communing with the speaker’s soul. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “coward conquest” and “body being” in line eleven.  

Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. There is a good example in this poem when the speaker describes the earth as a “he” and as being paid its “due”. The speaker’s body is returned to the earth but his soul is not. 

 

Analysis of Sonnet 74

Lines 1-4

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.

In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 74,’ the speaker begins by telling the youth that he shouldn’t be sad when death comes for the speaker and carries him away. It is inevitable and is coming for the speaker sooner than it is coming for the youth. Just as the Fair Youth’s life and beauty is going to continue in the lines of this sonnet and the others, so too is the speaker’s. “In this line” there will be some part of the speaker’s life. When the youth returns to it, there will be a “memorial” of the speaker’s life. 

 

Lines 5-8

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.

In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 74,’ the speaker says that when the youth comes back to this poem to read it over again he will encounter the part of the speaker that was entirely dedicated to the youth. The part that “was consecrate to thee”. There are religious and spiritual implications in these lines. They help to emphasize the importance the speaker places on the relationship he has with the youth. 

The next lines inform the youth, and any reader, that the earth will take part of him, but only the that which “is his due”. By personifying the earth the speaker is able to make the transition from life to death more interesting and multifaceted. The earth will take what it is owed, the body. But, the speaker’s soul is going to remain in his poetry. It is the “better part” of him, he adds. 

 

Lines 9-14

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 rememb’red.

The worth of that is that which it contains,

And that is this, and this with thee remains.

The speaker continues on in the next lines of ‘Sonnet 74’ to say that in the future when he’s dead the youth will only lose contact with the lesser part of the speaker. His body will go to the “worms” to eat. The other stronger and more courageous part of the speaker will remain in these poems for the youth to spend time with. The last two lines initially appear as a jumble of “this,” “that,” and “thee”. They boil down to a description of the speaker’s spirit in the poetry and that the poetry will stay with the youth.

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