What can defeat death? Medicine? Religious faith? Neither of these seem to do the trick for Shakespeare. No, for the Bard, only Art defeats death.
Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence of 154 verses, if read as a whole, reveal a kind of narrative thread. If you follow that thread, number 17 marks the end of the first part. The poet is just about fed up with trying to convince the beautiful Young Man to preserve his beauty by producing a beautiful child, and instead for the first time suggests that maybe the poet’s own poetic Art might be the only thing to overcome the power of death.
The suggestion is hesitant at first, for the Poet seems to disparage the veracity of his poetic art–‘The Poet lies’. But by the end of this sonnet he seems more certain of Art’s power: ‘You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.’
There’s some truly beautiful language in this sonnet, and I always find it a challenge to read aloud.
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 rhyme.