If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripp’d by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
“Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
But since he died and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.”
The poet reflects on his own mortality and the possibility that the youth will survive him. He adopts a tone of modest deprecation of his poetic worth. Clearly the age will advance to great heights of literary merit. And poets of days to come will outstrip him in style and virtuosity. If that is to be the case, then he adjures the youth to remember him not so much for his poetic prowess, but for the fact that he outdid all his rivals in the love which he bears to him, the glorious youth, and that outvies all claim to poetic excellence.
It is perhaps needless to state that we do not take this sonnet at its face value. In fact we read it almost directly contrary to its suface meaning. For we value the sonnets as much for their poetic merit as for their love declarations. Just as with sonnet 26, and those referring to the rival poet(s), 79-86, we take with a pinch of salt the modest self denunciation and claims of inadequacy. Yet it is difficult to pin down precisely the verbal subtlety which prompts us to reverse the significance of meaning of, say ll.5-8, and read into them their opposite, or if not their direct opposite, something seriously aslant to their overt purpose. Paradoxically it seems that the poem exists only to say that which it does not state – that the poet marches among the ranks of the best, more richly caparisoned than most, and that his love is worthy of his Muse, and that one continually betters the other, each mutually raising the other in turn to new heights of excellence.