When William Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, a group of 152 poems in all, he focused heavily on the concept of decay over time (CITE). Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold”, was certainly no exception. In this poem Shakespeare uses metaphors to describe his ageing process, invoking three mental pictures of how he interprets this decline. It is clear throughout the poem that the message pertains to the impermanence of youth. But in the last couplet we see that, specifically, Shakespeare is discussing his decline with a loved one, and presuming that this sorrowful loss will strengthen the love they feel. William Shakespeare was not a simple-minded man; that was to be sure. He shows through his complex writing style and use of several simultaneous figures of speech that he is a skillful and creative writer.
Indeed, as one of the most well-known writers in history, Shakespeare would naturally be adept at conveying his feelings. He is obviously a sensitive, emotional person; his topic displays the inner workings of a highly reflective mind, keenly focused on his mental upset about his ageing. It’s a matter of opinion if this intense focus is just a product of his self-pity and introspective nature, or if the worry is more focused toward the auditor of the poem, the person he is leaving behind. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets were addressed directly to a specific person (CITE). This appears to be the case, based on the ending couplet of the poem. In the first three stanzas, the “thou”(CITE) could be interpreted as the impersonal “you”, but it is established in the final lines that he is addressing a specific person, by talking about their love for him.
Regardless of whether he is aiming his words more at himself or his companion, the subject is undoubtedly his being deeply disturbed at the ageing process. This is a topic which most would not find necessary to dwell on, Specially because it was written when he was no older than thirty-six (CITE). Certainly, this was a time when the average longevity was shorter than today’s, but this may still give a small insight into the slightly melodramatic nature of Shakespeare’s poems. Because he was most notably a writer of long drama plays, Shakespeare’s characteristic style was heavily figurative. Here, in a short sonnet, he makes use of that same figurative delivery, but the subject pertains to his own life. Shakespeare, like any ageing person, is simply distressed at the fact that he is getting older. He compares himself to several symbolic endings, which he says a reader might see in him.
He then discusses the feelings his companion might have about his ageing, noting that they may find their love is strengthened by the realization that he may die soon. It goes without saying that Shakespeare’s attitude toward his ageing is negative. He immediately invokes a sense of sorrow in the first quatrain, which is inherent in the description of his chosen image. The metaphor in this part of the poem is of him as a season, specifically late fall or early winter. The subject throughout the stanza is the “time of year”(CITE), as mentioned in the first line, although he then stems off, probing deeply into its description. He paints a very specific literal image of the last leaves of fall, clinging onto the empty tree branches. These “boughs”(CITE) he personifies as shaking against the cold, which shows the living things as unhappy, and the environment—his environment—as a hostile place.
They are unprotected and lonely, and, given the time of year, have only more coldness and misery before them. Thus, Shakespeare’s metaphor lies in the loss of the “good days”, and the impending doom of the bad ones. He further describes these branches by comparing them, in another metaphor, to the “bare ruined choirs”(CITE). This portrays an image of a decrepit church building, an image that offers some sort of steeple jutting into the sky as a parallel to the bare branches. This is another example of good things gone by, where the goodness of religion and the “sweet birds”(CITE) used to be, but are now gone. The details he included, of only the uncomfortable temperature and the forlorn nature of the lonely leaves, show that he means to compare himself to autumn in a purely negative way. Using “yellow”(CITE) fall leaves instead of red or gold is a pessimistic picture, along with the mental imagery of a dilapidated church. He means to say that the best years of his life, comparable to the days of summer and early autumn, are behind him.
This is a more melancholy feeling because he focuses more in this stanza on what used to be, finishing with his mention of “sweet birds”(CITE) having sung there. He has undergone a transition period and is now at the point in his life where he looks forward to only the cold, harsh winter years. The next metaphor Shakespeare uses to describe the ending of his life is the ending of a single day. It is set up almost identically to the first quatrain. The subject, the “day”, is introduced in line 4 and is described further throughout the stanza. He is describing the twilight of the day, a time after the sun has set and dusk begins to fade into the night. As with the first comparison, this symbolizes the ending of his youth and the takeover of old age. A second metaphor is used in the last line, mirroring the one used to describe the branches.
This time, he uses a secondary metaphor to personify the “Black night” mentioned in line 7. This night is characterized as an extension of death itself, a sort of evil twin, that will envelop the world and put everyone to sleep. Both the darkness and the sleep itself are related to death here, which is as close as the author comes to directly saying that he is dreading his own death. The daylight of his youth has expired, and it is now literally going to be stolen from him by “night”—by death—and he will be put to rest. This is where one might think that the author is discussing his fear of literally dying, rather than just ageing in general or the loss of his youth. Here the tone is even more sombre than in the first quatrain because instead of focusing on the good things that used to be, he looks more upon the evil things that will be. “twilight”(CITE) and “sunset”(CITE) are not terribly sad mental images.
One tends to picture Shakespeare’s decline as a more graceful transition, due to the elegant connotation that both of these words carry, and the inclusion of the “by and by”(CITE) saying. This saying refers to a gradual transition, more epic in nature than the simple darkening of a single day. But even with the added elegance of these words, the overall attitude is still dismal, putting the main focus on the “black night”(CITE) and “death”(CITE). The final and most striking comparison Shakespeare draws is one between himself the embers of a fire. The mood here is more resigned to his fate than in the other two stanzas, because of his discussion of a permanent ending. The subject here is his “glowing”, which would be representative of the life left inside of him. His quickly diminishing life lays on top of the “Ashes of his youth”(10). It compares this pile of ashes in a simile to a deathbed; although in this case, it is not just a bed he is dying on but also the actual source of death itself.
He finishes this stanza with arguably the most powerful image of the poem, saying that the glow of life will be “Consumed with that which it was nourished by,”(12). This is image is the most striking of the poem because it bears a sense of finality that the other two lack; because the ending of a day or changing of a season is permanent, it does not come with the connotation of formality that this last example does. It is also an extraordinary comparison in that he describes the glow as being destroyed by the thing that once fed it; a powerfully accurate description of the ending of both one’s youth and a burning fire. A fire will burn itself out, the hot embers eventually snuffed by the ashes, which used to be the logs fueling the fire. Likewise, if you will, people live themselves out, by living vigorously and burning through all the vitality that they have to offer. The more vigour they display throughout life, the quicker they will run out of the drive to continue. This is the comparison Shakespeare is trying to draw, with both one’s vitality and a fire being eventually killed by the thing that used to nourish it.
This is also the part of the poem that would offer the interpretation that the poem focuses not on his literal death but just the death of his youth. This is because he doesn’t literally bring up death, as he does in the second quatrain, but just the termination of the flame of his vitality. After this most powerful image, Shakespeare moves the poem to its resolution in the last couplet of the poem. This is the section that connects the prior three and reveals his purpose for writing. The entire poem is a description of the three things “you” might see in Shakespeare, and in the final couplet he shows this to be not the impersonal “you” but a specific person. He says, presumably to a loved one or very close friend, that they may see these things in him, and that their love may be increased by the new knowledge that they may lose him soon. This reveals the entire purpose of the poem, of Shakespeare’s objectifying himself as a day upon which night is closing in, autumn that has been overtaken by winter, and a fire that has burned itself out. This is an appeal to the loved one, to suggest that they may appreciate him more based on these realizations.
This, to me, is reminiscent of when my grandmother used to say “You know, maybe I die soon…” in a broken Greek accent. This is an ageing man, pointing out to a younger companion that perhaps they should appreciate him more. It could be twisted to be a piece of advice in the general sense, in which he is simply saying to appreciate what you have before it’s gone. But one tends to think, based on his specific mention of a certain person’s love, that he is specifically asking for his own attention. He does not discuss his own love for the person, or his concern for their welfare, but rather focuses on only their love for him and the concern for his disappearing youth. Considering that this was probably a good fifteen to twenty years before his death, such vehement concerns may seem a tad melodramatic. It is this kind of dramatic display of feelings that he was going for, as a poet, to put all of his deepest tribulations down on paper and release them to the world.
This concern might actually spark awareness in his reader of their own passing youth. Even if it is not intended as so, the poem is motivation to live well and prosper, appreciating what you have before it’s too late. He also brings up the relatable notion of burning yourself out, and this burning out could happen in not only a general sense but in regards to a particular activity or person. It is a hard feeling to describe when something that you used to have such love for is no longer interesting to you, but Shakespeare’s metaphor describes it perfectly. Shakespeare’s overall message here, of the fleetingness of youth and life and vitality, is timeless.
Shakespeare presumably wrote this sonnet at a time of mid-life crisis. It is an appeal to a loved one to see the impermanence of his youth, by objectifying himself as a season, a day, or a burning fire, and comparing the respective endings of all three. His writing style, in typical Shakespearian fashion, is of flowing sentences and intricate descriptions, offering metaphors within metaphors. Amongst these descriptions, his tone goes from melancholy to sorrowful, and he describes all images from a pessimistic angle. The overall effect of the poem sparks in the reader self-questioning in which they may look at their own fleeting youth. None, however, would be able to describe any sad feelings they turn up so well as Shakespeare did, presenting a haunting picture of death, loss, and apprehension.
- “William Shakespeare.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/122>.