William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73That 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 ruin’d 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 death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Many sonnets written by William Shakespeare deal with tragedy, love and death, in sonnet seventy-three he focuses on death along with the signs of aging. Whether or not he is the subject of the sonnet or an observer, he expresses everything as if he were the subject. Shakespeare was at an age in his life where he could relate to the sonnet, which made the poem so much more effective. The subject of this sonnet is being looked at, and the observer comes to the conclusion that they see late fall, twilight and a dying fire; that is, the observer realizes that the person is getting old and they will soon lose him. Shakespeare’s way of reflecting the onset of aging and death is expressed through many literary techniques like theme, imagery, and wordplay. The significant points that reflect the onset of aging and death are portrayed through the metaphors of a tree at the end of autumn and a dwindling fire.
This sonnet takes place in autumn, because in the very beginning a tree is being compared to the person. “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” The yellow leaves falling in autumn supports the idea of winter?s immediate approach, which indirectly suggests that people get old and will parish as years slip by. This could also be taken as a metaphor, suggesting there are only a few years left on the subject’s tree, of life.
“Bare ruined choirs, where once the sweet late bird sang” tells the reader that in the summer time the birds would be on the branches singing like a church choir; whereas, in autumn the birds do not sing because they are gone from the bare branches. Another metaphor of the tree of life being bare.
Shakespeare sees sleeping and twilight as “Death’s second self”, because as night approaches people are unconscious like being dead. Shakespeare also suggests that the person is nearing the end of his life when such fire is glowing. The glowing of the fire is nourished by the burnt wood, and as the wood gets smaller the fire dyes out. Along with theme as a significant point, imagery is what paints a picture of the onset of aging and death. Shakespeare not only lets the readers read his sonnet, he lets the reader see an illustration with his descriptive words, “An essential 111 lesson.”(Dr. Pettice, class)
The setting is immediately presented in the beginning of the sonnet. The tree that is depicted in the autumn setting is compared to the subject of this sonnet. The tree is nearly bare with the wind blowing at the last leaves clinging on to the branches; only a few stubborn ones remaining. Although the description of the birds singing on the branches is that of the summer time, in contrast, the branches are bare in the autumn; the picture depicts the subject in his youthful years. Shakespeare’s interpretation from the quote “…seals up all in rest” gives a couple of different images. That quotation can portray a coffin that is sealing up the lid, or when nightfall’s people go to sleep; therefore, sleep indirectly implies death. The person and his own youth are lying on a bed of ashes that was fed by the burning of wood, which is compared to a deathbed. Shakespeare’s imagery on death is expressed very successfully through the tree, deathbed and the coffin. Shakespeare sonnets use a variety of words to manipulate the actual meaning of sentences. His creative words tell a story all by itself with the use of metaphors, from the words describing the subjects’ youth to the ashes of his deathbed. Shakespeare writes about yellow leaves clinging on to the trees and birds that use to sing on the branches in the summer time. These images can be interpreted as the person whom Shakespeare is referring to was young before but at the present moment, he is old and almost ready to die. The ash that his youth lies upon is manipulated to represent his deathbed where upon he will lie when it is time for him to die. Shakespeare compares the love between the two people as a log burning, as the fire is burning the log; the log becomes smaller consequentially resulting in the fire to dye out.
Another valid interpretation is offered by Mr. John S. Prince’s writing in the Explicator on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “The sonnet’s theme resembles, or rather anticipates, the theme of carpe diem.” This is a fine insight into the sonnet. He backs it by interpreting the couplet at the end “This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” To show that the speaker has come to terms with his undeniable death and now vows to make the most of what remains, as well as passing his knowledge to the naive youthful.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s sonnet seventy-three has accomplished the task of letting the readers know that this is about death and aging. The theme was well represented to make the sonnets meaning of aging and death the topic of this piece. Imagery was expressed to represent the sonnet successfully. The images Shakespeare created make the sonnet more interesting and easier to comprehend and relate. The wordplay was creatively sited to represent something similar to its meaning. This sonnet can be made into one of Shakespeare’s famous plays but he has isolated it to be fifteen lines, and very effective due to the theme, imagery, and wordplay that is expressed and displayed throughout the sonnet.
Kennedy, X.J. and Gioia, Dana. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: Longman, 2000
Prince, John S. “Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.” Explicator Vol. 55 Issue 4, p197