The Three “Monument” Sonnets — 55 and 81 and 107 — In Which the Poet Declares His Purpose

The Shakespearean sonnets printed in 1609 comprise a “monument” of verse for “eyes not yet created” in future generations. The 154 consecutively numbered sonnets represent a single, carefully designed masterwork of literary art. The individual verses are not compiled randomly; they are deliberately arranged into an overall structure, within which all parts operate together in service of the whole. Just as the author’s plays or narrative poems are unified works, so the string of numbered sonnets is a unified creation.


The poet shaped and numbered his sonnets into a complete structure only after the real-life story had run its course. He built his monument for much the same reason the Egyptians built the Pyramids, that is, as tombs to preserve the pharaohs or kings until they attained eternal life.

The overall design of the monument includes 152 sonnets plus a pair of sonnets as an epilogue; the basic structure is a central sequence of 100 sonnets or a “century” of verse, flanked by two sequences of twenty-six sonnets each:

1 to 26 = 26 sonnets
27 to 126 = the century = 100 sonnets
127 to 152 = 26 sonnets

Within the century are three individual sonnets – 55, 81 and 107 – that use the word “monument”; these also provide the foundational descriptions of the monument.

They are arranged so that Sonnet 55 + twenty-six = Sonnet 81 + twenty-six = Sonnet 107.

Sonnet 55 uses “monument” in the first line, although “monuments” fits the context – “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of Princes…”

The poet testifies that he intends the monument to contain “the living record” of the younger man’s “memory” for readers to come:

Sonnet 55

Not marble nor the gilded monument[s]
Of Princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall Statues over-turn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

The poet likely adapted Ovid and Horace in this sonnet, but that does not explain its intensity. Exactly why must he immortalize this younger man? What qualities, or achievements, entitle the younger man to “pace forth” against “death and all oblivious enmity”?

And while promising that “your praise shall still [always] find room even in the eyes of all posterity,” why does he never write the younger man’s name?

From the start, however, the poet is fully aware that “this powerful rhyme” will remain standing long after “the gilded monuments” erected for princes or kings have crumbled. How do we explain such statements if, in fact, the younger man himself is not a prince or king?

Sonnet 81 contains a direct promise to him that “my gentle verse” will become “your monument” for “eyes not yet created” and that “tongues to be” will therefore sing his praises over and over.

Sonnet 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 vertue hath my Pen)
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

The poet injects himself into the equation, asserting that “each part” of him will be “forgotten” once he departs from this world; but how, given his prediction of Sonnet 55 that “this powerful rhyme” will outlive all statues made of stone, can he also believe that he himself will not be remembered? On the surface, of course, given what we have come to believe, the man known as Shakespeare is certainly one of the most renowned figures in world history!

If his verse will outlive the work of masonry while his name or identity is forgotten, the only possible explanation is that “Shakespeare” is not his real name. It must be a pseudonym or pen name. In the above lines he predicts that “I, once gone, to all the world must die” – in other words, his authorship of these sonnets and all the other Shakespeare works will be unknown to the world.

Clearly a sacrifice is being made, as indicated by the full statement in two lines: “Your name from hence immortal life shall have, though I (once gone) to all the world must die.” The younger man’s name will be known throughout the future of recorded history, while the author’s identity disappears from that same record.

Southampton spent two years and two months in the Tower

Southampton spent two years and two months in the Tower

The only individual with whom “Shakespeare” publicly connected to himself was Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), to whom he dedicated his first two published works, the narrative poems Venus and Adonis of 1593 and Lucrece of 1594. The author need not name Southampton in the Sonnets, because Southampton is the one person with whom “Shakespeare” chose to link himself.

But why then does he refrain from identifying Southampton by name? The explanation must be that it would be too dangerous to do so. It would be too dangerous for the author and presumably also for Southampton himself. The earl is special; he is addressed the way one would address a prince or king; but this cannot be written publicly without serious repercussions.

Southampton’s identity is revealed in Sonnet 107, which has been identified by many scholars as referring to events in the spring of 1603 – the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of King James on 24 March 1603 and the new monarch’s release of Southampton from the Tower of London on 10 April 1603.

In fact the earl’s liberation from prison after being “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom” [thought to be serving a sentence of lifelong confinement] is the very first statement of this sonnet, indicating it’s the main topic. In the poet’s view, Elizabeth’s death and the transfer of rule from the Tudor dynasty to the Stuart line were not the most important events; rather, the succession of James paved the way for Southampton to gain his freedom.

The earl had been confined in the Tower for twenty-six months, ever since the night of the failed Essex Rebellion on 8 February 1601. Southampton and Essex had gone on trial together on 19 February 1601; both had been found guilty of high treason and sentenced to die; Essex was beheaded six days later, but Southampton was spared execution. He remained in prison until after the succession and King James, before leaving Scotland, sent ahead orders for his immediate release.

Edward de Vere  17th Earl of Oxford The Poet

Edward de Vere
17th Earl of Oxford
The Poet

Sonnet 107 is about Southampton leaving the Tower and looking “fresh” as he had been when, for example, the author in Sonnet 1 in the early 1590s had called him “the world’s fresh ornament and only herald to the gaudy spring.” In the second quatrain the poet refers to the Queen as “the mortal Moon” whose body has come to its natural end although she has “endured” her “eclipse” as a divinely ordained monarch who is immortal.

Those who predicted civil war around the throne were wrong. The transfer of the crown to James, once an uncertainty, is now assured; and England now faces a time of prolonged peace. Now Southampton looks “fresh” again, while the poet claims that he himself will defeat death by living within these eternal lines of the sonnets. But then comes the real point, which is that “in this” verse Southampton will have his “monument,” which will outlive all earthly crests and tombs for monarchs.

Sonnet 107

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal Moone hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad Augurs mock their own presage,
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims Olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since spite of him I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes.
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

Once again the poet is calling Southampton a prince or king – one who, like Queen Elizabeth herself, deserves immortality. Given that Southampton will never be acknowledged as such during his lifetime or in the record of England’s history, the poet means to create it for him – concealing this dangerous truth within the monument, while also revealing it within the monument to those of us in posterity. After more than four centuries, isn’t it about time for us to comprehend him?

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