Shakespeare Sonnet 17: "Who will believe my verse in time to come"

Updated on May 14, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real Shakespeare
The real Shakespeare | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 17

The final sonnet in the "Marriage Sonnets" sequence finds the speaker hoping to guard his own legacy. If the young man will do as the speaker suggests, the speaker's own veracity will be shielded. The entire sequence has presented a clever speaker employing a number of persuasive tactics to convince the young that marrying and springing off children is in the lad's best interest.

The speaker has dramatized any number of reasons that the young man should marry, among them and front and center has been the ability to remain a near immortal through those pleasant children the young man would engender, according to the speaker. Sonnet 17 is the last marriage sonnet of the "Marriage Sonnet" sequence; the speaker makes a final plea to the young man, urging him to produce offspring, this time for the sake of the speaker’s own veracity.

(Please note: In the original Shakespeare sonnets, the spelling of the poetic device is always "rime," as the first published edition in 1609 attests. The Shakespeare writer was composing his sonnets two centuries before Dr. Samuel Johnson erroneously introduced the spelling "rhyme" into English. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Sonnet 17

Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, ‘This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.’
So should my papers, yellow’d with their age,
Be scorn’d, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice,—in it and in my rime.

Reading of Sonnet 17

Commentary

Sonnet 17 is the last marriage sonnet of the "Marriage Sonnets" sequence; the speaker makes a final plea to the young man, urging him to produce offspring, this time for the sake of the speaker’s own veracity.

First Quatrain: Putting His Verse in Question

Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.

The speaker in Sonnet 17 begins his persuasion of the same young gentleman again, as he asks the lad to think about his future and consider that the speaker’s words will sound exaggerated to the ears of future generations. The speaker has lavished praise on the young man’s attributes, his "high deserts," and the speaker now notes that such praise may sound unbelievable, like blatant flattery, especially coming as it does in sonnet form.

Yet the speaker insists that his sonnet is a mere "tomb," which cannot, in fact, do justice to the young man’s gifts. The poem likely covers in fog the young man's life. The sonnet hardly express "half your parts." Thus the speaker queries, "Who will believe my verse in time to come . . . ?"

Second Quatrain: Filling His Verse with Praise for the Lad's Beauty

If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, ‘This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.’

The speaker, in the second quatrain, continues his musings on the uselessness of filling his sonnet with the young man’s "beauty" and "heavenly touches." He claims that if he simply continues to fill his pieces with such things, the future generations will say that the speaker/sonneteer is a liar because no such amazing beauty has ever existed in a man.

The speaker and the young man both know how pleasant and wonderful the lad is, but because the young man’s qualities are rare, it will be unlikely that those reading about him in future will be able to accept the facts of the lad's endowment. The speaker once again attempts to lead the young man to a conclusion about his duty to avoid such a fate.

Third Quatrain: Appealing to Vanity

So should my papers, yellow’d with their age,
Be scorn’d, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:

The speaker asserts to the young man that if his sonnetry is thought nothing but a bunch of lies, then the young man’s true attributes will be thought of as nothing more than the boasting of an old man, who was putting out only hot air without any truth. The young man’s qualities will come to nothing but the rantings of crazed poet who stretched the truth to fill is poems with lie after lie about the young man's beauty.

The speaker is banking on the young lad’s vain nature in following the speaker's argument and that the lad will feel compelled to do anything the speaker suggests to avoid having his pleasing qualities assigned to the dustbin of history as the imagination of a mad sonneteer.

The Couplet: So His Sonnets Will Ring True

But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice,—in it and in my rime.

Finally, the couplet squarely addresses the same issue: that the young man should marry and produce children so the lad will by doubly rendered immortal, both through his children and through the speaker's verse. If the young lad will only do his duty, follow the speaker's advice and marry and produce children, the problem will never perplex them.

Future generations will appreciate the fact that the young lad was a pleasing, handsome man, and the speaker’s sonnet will contain the ring of truth that the speaker believes they possess.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 15 months ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Bassam.

  • Bassam Alsurchi profile image

    Bassam Alsurchi 15 months ago

    Very nice

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