feathers elizabeth

Even a genius like Shakespeare can’t always hit a home run. But even his run-of-the mill sonnets exhibit all the best qualities of great verse, and if he had not written some of his scintillating treasures, we’d probably still be forcing high school students to read ones like 81. Sonnet 81 is included with ‘Rival Poet’ sequence, though the rival really doesn’t show up here. What is mentioned is the immortality of verse, and how only Art can make us humans mortal.

81

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.
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 entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
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, even in the mouths of men.

The really cool part of this sonnet is when the Poet tells his Young Man that the Poet’s verse is so darn good, that it’ll not immortalize the Poet, but immortalize the Young Man:

…I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse…

Ironically, today we know who Shakespeare is, but there are only theories as to whom the Young Man might’ve been.

The best part of this sonnet, I think, doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and that’s the final couplet. By the end of the Sonnet, the Poet has already made clear how great he thinks his verse is, and how that verse will immortalize his Young Man beyond the grave. Then final image, tying the act of composing with a mortal man’s dying breath. You see, a common practice in Elizabethan England was to use a feather held to the lips of the dying, to see if breath still fluttered, or if they had finally died.

You still shall live–such virtue hath my pen–
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

This famous 1575 image of Queen Elizabeth, artist unknown, is just one example of the importance of feathers in Elizabethan life: fashion, quills for pens (pens being a personal favorite of Shakespeare’s), fans (fans being a personal favorite of Elizabeth’s), and for testing the breath of the dying.

 

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