How poetry works: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73

Many rank this as Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet. It is certainly a masterpiece of imagery and sentiment as well as demonstrating Shakespeare’s complete mastery of the Sonnet form. Here it is in the original as published in quarto format by Thomas Thorpe in 1609, no doubt without the author’s permission. This was private writing not meant for public consumption.

sonnet-73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

This is the English sonnet, as distinct from the Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet or the Spenserian Sonnet. The English sonnet has the simplest form consisting of 3 quatrains (sets of four lines) of alternating rhyme and a couplet (two lines) at the end. Sonnet 73 is a brilliant example of the way Shakespeare exploits this form and uses it to tie the imagery and the meaning of the poem together.

In the first quatrain

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Shakespeare uses six separate metaphors in this first quatrain. The first is the idea of the yellow leaves hanging on the trees.

leaves or few

This is linked to the idea of the flesh hanging to the limbs of the ageing poet.

In passing, it is worth commenting on the sheer brilliance of the second line of this sonnet and the way that Shakespeare describes the yellow leaves. Having introduced the idea of the yellow leaves hanging on the bough, he turns the image around with a simple phrase “one none” and then qualifies that again with “or few” and then links that phrase with an internal rhyme to “do hang”. The rhythm of the final six monosyllabic words captures the barren and ruined nature of the bough and the poet with absolute brilliance.

The second two metaphors that Shakespeare uses are the least explicit. The first is the underlying metaphor of the poet’s ageing body. Shakespeare links the idea of ageing to third and fourth metaphors: that of the tree where “yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” and that of the ruins of the church “Bare ruined choirs”. These metaphors are linked through the idea of the boughs and the poet’s limbs shaking against the cold.

Sweet birds have sung in the boughs of the trees, the sweet birds or choristers sung in the church and the the sweet birds of passion have sung in the poet’s limbs.

J. M. W. Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking Towards the East Window, 1794

J. M. W. Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking Towards the East Window, 1794

Bare ruined choirs

Bare ruined choirs

In the second quatrain, Shakespeare links the ideas of ruin and decay in nature with the ideas of the death and sleep, which is “Death’s second self”.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest

The idea of the similarity between death and sleep is a common one in Shakespeare:

Hamlet: To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to

Hamlet (Act 3, Scene1 64-67)

Macbeth: the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life

Macbeth (Act 2, Scene 2, 47-49)

Prospero: We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

The Tempest (Act 4, Scene 1, 156–158)

The image of approaching night and death is embedded in

the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west

sunset fading

The image of twilight and the sunset is a visual link to the yellow and red colours of fading leaves and in the final quatrain this is linked to the idea of fire.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was by.

glowing of such fire, That on the ashes of his youth doth lie

The final quatrains by far the most difficult. The book tells his lover that the glow of twilight is like the glowing embers of the fire of his life. Now he lies on “the ashes of his youth” as if he were on his deathbed. His passion for life has consumed him just as it has nourished him.

The Sonnet ends as sonnets must, with a couplet:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

The technique that Shakespeare uses here is called a volta or turn and is common to most sonnets. The volta constitutes the point at which the poet turns the meaning, the tone or the imagery of the poem in a different direction. Here the poet stops describing his own situation and turns again to address his young lover to whom the poem is dedicated. It also links to the very first line in the poem which is also addressed to the younger lover:

thou mayst in me behold”

The brilliance of this particular poem rests in the dazzling visual imagery that runs throughout. The complex image of the poet’s body, the leaves on the tree and the choir of the church in the first quatrain must rank as one of the most brilliant in English literature. This initial image of the autumn leaves is then linked to the images of sunset and fire and the death of passion.

The true greatness of this poem lies in combining its brilliantly detailed imagery with the great themes of love and death. A true masterpiece.

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