Sonnet 73

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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 seest 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 seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed 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.

–William Shakespeare

Sonnet 73, one of William Shakespeare's most famous sonnets, focuses upon the theme of old age, with each of the three quatrains encompassing a metaphor. The sonnet is pensive in tone, and although it is written to a young friend (See: Fair Youth), it is wholly introspective until the final couplet, which finally turns to the person who is addressed (the "thou" in line one).

Joseph Kau suggests that Samuel Daniel had a fair amount of influence on this sonnet and that Shakespeare's immediate source of the impresa, or motto, "Qua me alit me extinguit" came from Geoffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblems (London, 1586)[1]

Analysis and synopsis[edit]

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 mainly focuses on the use of metaphor to aid his audience in thoroughly understanding the meaning of each of the three quatrains. Richard B. Hovey utterly believes that “in Sonnet 73 the poet-narrator compares his state with three things: autumn, the passing of day, and the burning out of a fire. To each of these comparisons Shakespeare devotes a quatrain, a quatrain which develops a metaphor”.[2] Therefore, although believed to be one of Shakespeare’s well-known sonnets, Sonnet 73 has had numerous comments, with different perspectives on its significance, as well as its addressee.

Barbara Estermann discusses William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 in relation to the beginning of the Renaissance. She argues that the speaker of Sonnet 73 is comparing himself to the universe through his transition from “the physical act of aging to his final act of dying, and then to his death”.[3] Esterman clarifies that throughout the three quatrains of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, the speaker “demonstrates man’s relationship to the cosmos and the parallel properties which ultimately reveal his humanity and his link to his to the universe. Shakespeare thus compares the fading of his youth through the three elements of the universe: the fading of life, the fading of the light, and the dying of the fire”.[4]

Sonnet 73 mainly focuses on the theme of old age and its effect on human beings. Throughout this sonnet, Shakespeare’s intent is to allow his audience to observe the consequences and outcomes of old age. To properly get his point across to his readers, Shakespeare uses a variety of metaphors throughout the three quatrains to help his audience distinguish what he understands to be old age. As a result, throughout the entire sonnet the tone of his voice is in some sense negative and cold, because the thought of old age which results in death is rarely enjoyed and becomes a burden on the lives of each individual. This sonnet addresses the poet’s lover, who is believed to be a man. Throughout the poem, the poet tries to explain to his lover the difficulty of old age. Shakespeare informs his audience that old age and death both share an inevitable relationship, which each individual must experience, at one point in their lifetime. He uses the metaphor of the season of fall when he refers to the “yellow leaves,” before he emphasizes the death of winter, which is recognized, when he begins to talk about the “cold”. Hence, in this sonnet, Shakespeare’s use of metaphor puts an emphasis on the notion of death and old age.

The initial quatrain of Sonnet 73 is neatly recapitulated by Seymour-Smith: “a highly compressed metaphor in which Shakespeare visualizes the ruined arches of churches, the memory of singing voices still echoing in them, and compares this with the naked boughs of early winter which he identifies himself” [5]). The poet perceives that death occurs that “time of year” when it is dark, cold and gloomy; the time after the “yellow leaves” have disappeared, and the birds have stopped singing and have left their branches, their place of residence. Throughout the first quatrain, Shakespeare reveals that his lover is aging through his eyes comparing him to a tree without any leaves, “none, or few do hang.” As a result, his lover’s body shivers, portraying that he has lost his youth seeing as his body can no longer take the cold.

In the second quatrain, Shakespeare focuses on the “twilight of such day” as death approaches throughout the nighttime. Barbara Estermann states that, “he is concerned with the change of light, from twilight to sunset to black night, revealing the last hours of life”.[6] Thus he believes that as the sunset fades, the dark night “doth take away” his life, which he will not be able to regain, after the “black night”. As a result, as the night approaches the individual’s youth begins to fade away and his old age leads him to the path of death.

Carl D. Atkins insinuates that the final quatrain of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is the final stage in which youth disappears forever. “As the fire goes out when the wood which has been feeding it is consumed, so is life extinguished when the strength of youth is past.”.[7] He compares the burning fire that slowly goes out to the passing away of life, as old age prevails youth. Shakespeare is concerned with the reality of death, “the fading out of life’s energy”.[8] He realizes that what he has “nourished” but must now “expire”. “The ashes of his youth doth lie” –the ashes of his youth burn brightly, as he recognizes that what brightened up his youth is devoured by the fire burning away his old age. As a result, Shakespeare informs his audience that we must “love more strongly,” because in the end, we are going to leave it all behind and respond to death.

Structure and metaphors[edit]

Sonnet 73 is a classic Shakespearean sonnet focused around the elements of time and a strong skepticism against old age. Written from one lover to another, this sonnet structurally comprises three quatrains and a couplet.[9] The organization of the poem serves many roles in the overall effectiveness of the poem. Yet, one of the major roles implied by this scheme revolved around ending each quatrain with a complete phrase. Given the rhyme scheme of every other line within the quatrain, as an audience we are to infer a statement is being made by the end of every four lines. Further, when shifted toward the next four lines, a shift in the overall thought process is being made by the author.


Overall, the structure and use of metaphors are two connected entities toward the overall progression within the sonnet. Seen as a harsh critic on age, Shakespeare sets up the negative effects of aging in the three quatrains of this poem. These aspects not only take on a universal aspect from the symbols, but represent the inevitability of a gradual lapse in the element of time in general from their placement in the poem. Further, many of the metaphors utilized in this sonnet were personified and overwhelmed by this connection between the speaker's youth and death bed.[10] This inevitability leads to the purpose and transformation experienced from our author by the final lines of the poem. A deeper appreciation for his lover in spite of his narcissistic views toward death serves as the overall rationale behind Sonnet 73.[citation needed]

Interpretation and criticism[edit]

The subject of Sonnet 73 is under debate among many critics. Agreeing that the obvious interpretation of Sonnet 73 forces the reader to face the fatality of life, John Prince says that the most common conclusion reached is that the speaker is telling his listener about his own life and the certainty of death in his near future. After going through a lengthy description that, on the surface, describes the passage of time and the coming of death, he concludes his dissertation by saying that the reader perceives this eminent death and, because he does, he loves the author even more. However, an alternative understanding of the sonnet presented by Prince asserts that the author does not intend to address death, but rather the passage of youth. With this, the topic of the sonnet moves from the speaker’s life to the listener’s life.[11]

The key to these two interpretations lies in the very last line, “this thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, to love that well which thou must leave ere long”. The question that must be addressed is this: to whom or to what is “that” referring to, the speaker’s life or the reader’s? This alternative interpretation suggests that it refers to the reader’s life and therefore does not concern the death of the author, but rather the loss of youth of the reader. The last clause, which says “which thou must leave ere long”, emphasizes this point, because the reader must eventually leave his youth.[12] Prince explains this by saying:

“Why, if the speaker is referring to his own life, does he state that the listener must ‘leave’ the speaker's life? If the ‘that’ in the final line does refer to the speaker's life, then why doesn't the last line read ‘To love that well which thou must lose ere long?’ Or why doesn't the action of leaving have as its subject the ‘I,’ the poet, who in death would leave behind his auditor?” [13]

By understanding the last line to refer to the reader’s life, rather than the speaker, Prince concludes that the sonnet is not referring to death and leaving love, like most would but instead the loss of youth that all must endure.

Additionally, Frank Bernhard criticizes the metaphors Shakespeare used to describe the passage of time, be it the coming of death or simply the loss of youth. Though lyrical, they are logically off and quite cliché, being the overused themes of seasonal change, sunset, and burn. In fact, the only notably original line is the one concerning leaves, stating that “when yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang, upon those boughs”.[14] Logic would require that few should proceed none; in fact, if the boughs were bare, no leaves would hang. Bernhard argues that Shakespeare did this on purpose, evoking sympathy from the reader as they “wish to nurse and cherish what little is left”, taking him through the logic of pathos – ruefulness, to resignation, to sympathy.[15] This logic, Bernhard asserts, dictates the entire sonnet. Instead of moving from hour, to day, to year with fire, then sunset, then seasons, Shakespeare moves backwards. By making time shorter and shorter, the reader’s fleeting mortality comes into focus, while sympathy for the speaker grows. This logic of pathos can be seen in the images in the sonnet’s three quatrains. Bernhard explains:

“Think now of the sonnet's three quatrains as a rectangular grid with one row for each of the governing images, and with four vertical columns:


spring / summer / fall / winter

morning / noon / evening / night

tree / log / ember / ashes


These divisions of the images seem perfectly congruous, but they are not. In the year the cold of winter takes up one quarter of the row; in the day, night takes up one half of the row; in the final row, however, death begins the moment the tree is chopped down into logs”.[16]

This is a gradual progression to hopelessness. The sun goes away in the winter, but returns in the spring; it sets in the evening, but will rise in the morning; but the tree that has been chopped into logs and burned into ashes will never grow again. Bernhard concludes by arguing that the end couplet, compared to the beautifully crafted logic of pathos created prior, is anti-climactic and redundant. The poem’s first three quatrains mean more to the reader than the seemingly important summation of the final couplet.[17]

Though he agrees with Bernhard in that the poem seems to create two themes, one which argues for devotion from a younger lover to one who will not be around much longer, and another which urges the young lover to enjoy his fleeting youth, James Schiffer asserts that the final couplet, instead of being unneeded and unimportant, brings the two interpretations together. In order to understand this, he explains that the reader must look at the preceding sonnets, 71 and 72, and the subsequent sonnet, 74. He explains:

“The older poet may desire to ‘love more strong’ from the younger man but feels, as 72 discloses, that he does not deserve it. This psychological conflict explains why the couplet hovers equivocally between the conclusions ‘to love me’, which the persona cannot bring himself to ask for outright, and ‘to love your youth’, the impersonal alternative exacted by his self-contempt”.[18]

By reading the final couplet in this manner, the reader will realize that the two discordant meanings of the final statement do in fact merge to provide a more complex impression of the author's state of mind. Furthermore, this successfully puts the focus of the reader on the psyche of the “I”, which is the subject of the following sonnet 74.

Buddhist scholars look to this sonnet to illustrate that the nature of love lies in the awareness of life's impermanence; a lesson often learned too late. Ultimately, the one who must be loved is ourselves as we march past all the warning signs, into the black night. The curious line 'death's second self' strikes at the duality between the objective perception of death in others and the ego's interpretation of that event. In a sense, this sonnet also reaches back into pagan images of pyres and sacrifice, as well as reaching into a future that, instead of exaltations of heaven's glory, urges the reader to take responsibility for their own relationship with reality. - Austin Sirch

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Kau, Joseph. "Daniel's Influence on an Image in Pericles and Sonnet 73: An Impresa of Destruction." Shakespeare Quarterly 26(1975): 51-53.
  2. ^ Richard B. Hovey, “Sonnet 73,” College English 23.8 (1962): p. 672-673 < http://www.jstor.org/stable/373787>)
  3. ^ Barbara Estermann, “Shakespeare’s SONNET 73,” Explicator 38.3 (2008): p. 11-12
  4. ^ Barbara Estermann, “Shakespeare’s SONNET 73,” Explicator 38.3 (2008): p. 11
  5. ^ Ed. Atkins, Carl D. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007. pg. 197
  6. ^ Barbara Estermann, “Shakespeare’s SONNET 73,” Explicator 38.3 (2008): p. 11.
  7. ^ Atkins 198
  8. ^ Barbara Estermann, “Shakespeare’s SONNET 73,” Explicator 38.3 (2008): p. 11.
  9. ^ “Sonnet.” Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2009): pg. 1
  10. ^ Stephen Booth, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, New Haven and London Yale University Press (1977) pg. 260
  11. ^ Prince, John S. Explicator 55.4 (1997): 197
  12. ^ Prince 198
  13. ^ Prince 197
  14. ^ Bernhard, Frank. The Explicator 62.1 (2003): 3
  15. ^ Bernhard 4
  16. ^ Bernhard 4
  17. ^ Bernhard 4
  18. ^ Schiffer, James. Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays. New York and London: Garland, 1999. Print

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