Sonnet 81

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Sonnet 81
Detail of old-spelling text
Sonnet 81 in the 1609 Quarto
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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.





—William Shakespeare[1]

Sonnet 81 is one of the 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare, which were published in a quarto titled Shakespeare's Sonnets in 1609. It is a part of the Fair Youth series of sonnets, and the fourth sonnet of the Rival Poet subsequence.


Sonnet 81 is an English or Shakespearean sonnet. The English sonnet has three quatrains, followed by a final rhyming couplet. It follows the typical rhyme scheme of the form, abab cdcd efef gg and is composed in iambic pentameter, a type of poetic metre based on five pairs of metrically weak/strong syllabic positions. The 5th line exemplifies a regular iambic pentameter:

 ×    /     ×   /    ×  /  ×   /     ×    / 
Your name from hence immortal life shall have, (81.5)

The 2nd and 4th lines feature a final extrametrical syllable or feminine ending:

×   /   ×  /     ×  / ×  /     ×   / (×) 
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten; (81.2)
/ = ictus, a metrically strong syllabic position. × = nonictus. (×) = extrametrical syllable.

The meter demands a few variant pronunciations: line 8's "entombèd" is pronounced as 3 syllables, and line 14's "even" as 1.[2]


There are many theories to the identity of the young man. Shakespeare's one-time patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton is a potential fit, as is Shakespeare's later patron, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke.[3]

Oxford further speculates that Henry Wriothesley is the likely inspiration "Oxford records the reason for what will become "the Shakespeare mystery" in a single verse. He testifies that he faces the obliteration of his identity "to all the world" because of his sacrifice to gain ultimate liberation for his royal son, Henry Wriothesley, from the Tower of London. He vows to construct the Monument of the Sonnets to preserve this truth "which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read." This sonnet is a glorious homage to Southampton as a king.[4]


The first quatrain tackles the idea of achieving immortality through writing. "Sonnet 81 moves towards the topos of poetic immortality. The poet's claim that his 'gentle verse' will be a 'monument', evoking once more the loci classici of Horace and Ovid ..., was standard among sonneteers".[5] In the second quatrain Shakespeare writes that his poems will immortalize the youth. Katherine Duncan-Jones writes in her book titled Shakespeare's Sonnets "When the poet dies, he will be quickly forgotten; but when the youth dies, he will continue to live as the subject-matter of the poet's verse."[6] The third quatrain and couplet tie together and conclude the idea of poetic immortality.


  1. ^ Pooler, C[harles] Knox, ed. (1918). The Works of Shakespeare: Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare [1st series]. London: Methuen & Company. OCLC 4770201. 
  2. ^ Booth 2000, p. 71.
  3. ^ Boyd, William (19 November 2005). "Two Loves Have I". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 February 2011.
  4. ^ The "Shakespeare" Sacrifice Your Monument Day Fifty-Five in the Tower, [1]
  5. ^ Larsen, Kenneth J. "Essays on Shakespeare's Sonnets." Williamshakespeare-sonnets. N.p., n.d. Web.[2]
  6. ^ Shakespeare, William, and Katherine Duncan-Jones. Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: Methuen Drama, 2010. Print.

Further reading[edit]

First edition and facsimile
Variorum editions
Modern critical editions