‘Sonnet 81’ also known as ‘Or I shall live, your epitaph to make,’ is number eighty-one of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote over his lifetime. This particular sonnet and those which are numbered one through one hundred and twenty-six belong to Shakespeare’s well-loved 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.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker tells the fair use that either he will outlive him and write his epigraph or he will die first and rot in the earth while the youth lives on. Either way, the Fair Youth will be remembered long after his days and this speaker will not.
Shakespeare’s speaker knows that once he dies he will be lost in the minds of men forever. But, this is not the case with the Fair Youth. Due to the strength of the speaker’s verse, the Fair Youth will live on in the mouths and minds of men for generations to come.
‘Sonnet 81 ’ 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” (Italian for “turn”) 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 81 ’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and personification. The latter occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, in the last lines of the poem where the speaker says that his pen has “virtue”. This is due entirely to its subject matter, the Fair Youth.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is a good example in the third quatrain when the speaker says that his verse will be the youth’s monument after he has passed away. All the poems the speaker has written about him will work together to preserve him in the minds of men.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “mouths” and “men” in the last line and “gone” and “grave” in lines two and three of the second quatrain.
Or I shall live, your epitaph to make,
Or you survive, when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 81,’ the speaker begins by speaking directly to the Fair Youth. He tells this young man that one of two things is going to happen. First, he will live longer than the youth and be able to write his “epitaph“. Or, if the Fair Youth “survives“ longer than a speaker does then he will live on while the speaker rots in the earth. But, either way, death will not strip from them the memory of one another and the time they’ve spent together. The situation becomes more complex as the speaker reverts to his common position of believing that the Fair Youth is far superior to him. He thinks that time will do nothing to corrupt the Fair Youth’s memory but will surely erase everyone’s memory of the speaker.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombèd in men’s eyes shall lie.
The speaker thinks that once he’s gone the youth’s name will have “immortal life“. When he’s gone, he will be dead to the world. No one will remember that the speaker ever existed.
He will not be granted a grand and beautiful grave. Rather, he will have a “common grave” in which any man could’ve been buried. In contrast, the Fair Youth will have a tomb in the eyes of all men. He will never be forgotten.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live—such virtue hath my pen—
Where breath most breathes, ev’n in the mouths of men.
The speaker continues on to discuss the same themes in the third and final quatrain. He says that the Fair Youth will live on forever in his “gentle verse“. This is a reference to this particular sonnet and all other sonnets that are dedicated to the young man. Future eyes will read over these lines and know the Fair Youth for who he was. They will talk about this young man and wonder over him when he has long since passed away.
In the last two lines, the speaker says that the Fair Youth will live through the power of the speaker’s pen. He won’t only simply stay alive, but will exist in the “breath” and in the “mouths of men”. The Fair Youth will live in their voices as they discuss his beauty, grace and originality.