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.

MONUMENT cover

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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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for thematically uniting these particular Sonnets. They are also united by the same number cue, being twenty-six apart from each other, a numerical device that covertly identifies the subject beyond doubt, ––since it was Southampton who spent twenty-six months in the clink. The two spacings combine nicely with the twenty–six Sonnets before and after the century cycle to make a grand total of hmmm, four/vier/Vere ID’s.

    • Thanks, Bill. You’ve contributed mightily to these ideas, and it’s much appreciated. Happy New Year, by the way.

  2. Hello Hank – my name is Aaron Pino – I am a professional musician with a long standing interest in the Shakespeare authorship. I have always been an admirer of your work, and have followed this blog since it’s inception. Your work has totally convinced me of the Prince Tudor theory. Recently, I have become more curious about PT2, and more convinced of it as well, after reading Beauclerke. Anyway, I noticed that you pluralized monuments to match the plural Princes. Might I suggest that perhaps the intended meaning is one monument for two specific Tudor Princes?

    • Good to hear from you, Aaron, and thanks for the comment. You may well be right that Oxford had the first claim by blood as Elizabeth’s natural heir. In Sonnet 152, containing his final bitter words to the queen, he accuses her of “vowing new hate after new love bearing” — refusing to acknowledge a new child born of her body — and of breaking “two oaths” rather than just one.

      In loving thee thou knows’t I am forsworn,
      But thou art twice forsworn to me love swearing:
      In act thy bed-vow broke and new faith torn
      In vowing new hate after new love bearing.
      But why of two oaths’ breach do I accuse thee…

      Once others in the growing Oxfordian community realize that Oxford has left behind for us this record of his feelings toward Queen Elizabeth, there will be a much greater urgency to tell his story. At this point, the safe way to go is to keep arguing with Stanley Wells and James Shapiro, gleefully pointing out their flawed arguments. All that is great, but it cannot carry the force of revelation that we feel when reading Charles Beauclerk’s masterful work. Ah, but the Stratfordians have no corner on narrow-mindedness! That malady affects us all — and I too must be afflicted with it!

      Thanks again.

  3. As I’ve shown it to Hank, I’ve found how Oxenford placed the Son in this Monument, by the same 26-gap method.

    • More power to you. And don’t forget Monox meant something to the initiated few. “My Shakespeare” didn’t come out of thin air. They was bubblin’ over with allusions.

      • Ha! Yes, sir.

    • Well done, Sandy.

      • Not well enough. seemingly. Not our side, not the opposite … it’s so sad.

  4. One question which you’ve probably dealt with. Meres was aware of Shakespeare’s sonnets referring to his “sugared sonnets among private friends.” (From the traditional view who were these “friends”- Burbage, Phillips? This doesn’t sound right for these intimate poems.
    I do think Meres was operating on second hand knowledge but how does this early date fit into this thematic view, which is quite compelling.

    • Hi Ken, thanks for the question. It deserves treatment on a separate blog, and perhaps I can work up one soon. Meanwhile, first, the basic answer is that, assuming that Meres is referring at least in part to any of the sonnets in the quarto of 1609, they must be those numbered 1 to 26 plus those numbered 138 and 144 as well as possibly 153 alone or both 153 and 154. A number of the sonnets within the century, i.e., within Sonnets 27 to 126, covering 1601-1603, may well have originated in earlier drafts in the 1590s, but if such exist I feel they would include those numbered around 121, which echoes the Oxford postscript of 1584 with “I am that I am,” etc.

      A few points:

      1) Meres probably acted on behalf of Oxford. Once Burghley died in August 1598, the earls faced Robert Cecil and the gloves had to come off. One way was for “Shakespeare” to get credit for the plays, as well as narrative poems, all aimed at politically helping the anti-Cecil faction in the end game. So the Meres publication appeared that fall and simultaneously came plays with the Shakespeare name — most aimed at matters of royal politics, who should govern, Richard II and Richard III, and so on.

      2) Oxford often used the plural to refer to a singular. In the sonnets, for example, in Sonnet 1 “fairest creatures” = Southampton. And “precious friends” of Sonnet 30 could refer to him alone, while also covering others such as Essex and those also imprisoned for the rebellion. So “private friends” could well mean Southampton alone, along with whomever he might have shown the sonnets written to/for him. These would be mainly those finally numbered 1 to 26. Sonnets 1-17 were obviously early 1590s, coordinated with thirty-six lines spoken by Venus in “Venus and Adonis” of 1593; and Sonnets 18-26 appear to cover the period up to the year 1600.

      3) No. 25 is a dead ringer for 1599 and the failed Irish campaign, referring to the “painful warrior” losing the monarch’s favor — “marigolds” refers to the marigold as Elizabeth’s flower, or one of her flowers. Of course, this was in the year following Meres.

      4) No. 26 appears to have been written earlier, mirroring the Lucrece dedication of 1594, intended to be used as an “envoy” or postscript to a series or segment — and in fact it does serve as an envoy, separating 1-26 from what’s to come.

      5) A glance over the sonnets indicates immediately that those numbered 1 to 26 are very different in tone from the rest to come. A great darkness descends over the sonnets after 26.

      6) “Sugared” in this context refers to “sweet” Shakespeare, his sweet lines, which are attractive and eloquent; in political terms, a politician may give a “sugared” speech that is well phrased even though, perhaps, poorly argued, etc. The sugary quality has nothing to do with romance or love, but, rather, with eloquence, and with very nice-sounding lines.

      7) In the years prior to Feb 8, 1601, there was no thought of producing a structural monument.

      8) Fripp in 1936, a Stratfordian, noticed the “century” of 27-126 and believed it was based on The Passionate Century of Love (Hekatompathia) of 1582, attributed to Watson and dedicated to Oxford. I believe Fripp was correct without knowing why.

      9) The Passionate Century is divided into two sections, 1-80 and 81-100; the same division occurs in the Shakespearean century, i.e., the eighty sonnets of 27-106 correspond with Southampton’s imprisonment (Feb 8, 1601 through April 9, 1601) while the following twenty sonnets correspond with the twenty days from No. 107 on 10 April 1603, the day of Southampton’s release, to No. 126, the “envoy” following No. 125 on 28 April 1603, the day of Elizabeth’s funeral and the official end of the Tudor dynasty.

      Please forgive the rambling, all from the single question.


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