Most of the 127 sonnets Shakespeare wrote to one of his close male friends are united by the theme of the overwhelming, destructive power of time, and the counterbalancing power of love and poetry to create and preserve beauty. Sonnet 73 is no different, but it does present an intriguing twist on this theme. Most of these sonnets address the youth and beauty of his male friend, as well as poetry’s power to immortalize them, but number 73 addresses the author’s own mortality and the friend’s love for him. Also, subtly woven into this turning inward is a lament that the creative vitality represented by the poems themselves is fading away, along with Shakespeare’s own life. Shakespeare seems to mourn most not his own mortality, but the fact that the creation of his love poems must itself one day cease, and this is a “death” more keenly felt by Shakespeare than mere mortality.
As usual, the sonnet breaks into four convenient sections, the three quatrains and the ending couplet. Each segment presents a new image to drive the point home. The first quatrain begins “thou mayst in me behold,” then the second “In me thou seest,” and the third also “In me thou seest” again. This repetition lends unity to the theme and helps convey ideas from one segment to the next. What follows in each stanza is a new image of decay and death. The sequence and relationship of these metaphors show a conscious effort at continuity, showing the death of the creative power in various guises.
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The first quatrain uses one of the oldest metaphors for approaching age and imminent death there is the coming of autumn. A couple of inventive images make the metaphor work in an especially apt way, however. In the first couple of lines, nothing is unusual; Shakespeare laments that when his friend looks at him, he sees “That time of year . . ./ When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold” (1-3). This is a straightforward complaint that, like autumn, the poet is moving gradually into old age, with the winter of death right around the corner. But Shakespeare’s description of the tree limbs in their bare autumn dress is key to the whole poem. He calls them “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” The barren tree branches are the “choir,” or the place where the choir sang. But the “sweet birds” are no longer there. Given that the entire sequence of poems is a sequence of songs, Shakespeare’s lament can be seen as a lament that the songs themselves, the poems, will cease. His poems were very sweet birds. At his death, no longer will there be any new songs to praise his friend.
The next quatrain lapses into a more mundane metaphor. The seeming proximity of sleep and death has long been a subject of English poetry. One noteworthy aspect of the metaphor here, though, is that Shakespeare doesn’t use death to meditate on the melancholy aspect of sleep, but uses sleep to speculate on the “restful” aspect of death. The image which opens the quatrain, the sunset, is standard; his life is at the point of fading into darkness.
But the sleep which night brings is not presented too fearfully here, because night brings “Death’s second self that seals up all in rest” (8). If Shakespeare is anticipating such a “rest,” then his passing will be melancholy (“ruined choirs,” “the twilight of [the] day”) but not altogether bad. The whole second quatrain isn’t obviously linked to the first, so any connections we make are speculative. But given the clear connection between the “sweet birds” and the poems themselves, it seems possible that the author is actually looking toward the cessation of all his singing with some sense of relief, as well as a melancholy sense of loss. The poet’s attitude is complex, not merely contradictory. He mourns the loss of the power to sing, but the rest is nevertheless welcomed.
The last quatrain takes this idea and builds an image that comments on the loss of creative fire as part of the approach of death. In this quatrain, Shakespeare is now a fire burned down to the glowing embers. The fire has all sorts of associations: the heat of passion (which fits this poem), the consuming quality of love (which also fits), the dangerous attraction of all human desires (they attract, but they burn). This latter fits this poem too. Shakespeare warns his lover in the end that loving too much is dangerous because the loss of the loved one always sears the heart with pain.
But what, metaphorically, is burning out? It’s not his love for his patron. All the first 127 sonnets establish over and over that that is something that won’t die. Nor is it the power of the individual sonnet to immortalize love or beauty. Shakespeare himself is anticipating his own death, but more than that he anticipates the death of the creative fire which has immortalized his friend in song. The image is subtle but clearly linked to the metaphors of the first and second quatrains. The sweet birds sang “late” (lately) in the first quatrain; the poet goes to his “rest” in the second. And in this third quatrain, Shakespeare writes that he is the glowing ember that “must expire,/ Consumed with that which it was nourished by.” Literally, the last embers die suffocated in the ash that the fire made of the wood which fed it. But metaphorically, what has “nourished” this whole sequence of songs is not just the fire of love, but the fire of the immortalizing power which is a creative genius. Shakespeare is writing about the ashes of his own creative “burnout”& emdash; his knowledge that one day he will write no more poems. One day the sweet birds will no longer sing, the creative sun will set and rest.
Yet the last two lines remind us that love will survive even that catastrophe. When he tells his friend that he is “strong/ To love that well, which thou must leave ere long” (13, 14), the antecedent for “that” isn’t just Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare is also praising his friend for a love so strong that it will outlive even the one death which strikes Shakespeare himself most to his heart& emdash; the “death” of the poetic sequence which has lifted their friendship to the level of immortalized poetic figures.
u / u / u / u / u /
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
Shakespeare provides us with a textbook case of iambic pentameter making great use of its qualities of de-emphasizing the rhyming and focusing more attention on the content and meaning. In fact, all the lines are pretty rigorously pentameter, except for line 11 which switches the rhythm around a little in the first two feet:
/ u / u u / u / u /
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Or would it be
/ u / u / u u / u /
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Shakespeare’s use of metaphors to illustrate decay and passing are striking and sets a somber tone throughout. He uses the season of Fall, the coming of night, and the burning out of a flame as metaphors for old age and death. The sonnet contains a series of metaphors that form a descriptive image. Shakespeare used conceits which are fanciful extended metaphors, used in love poems of earlier centuries.
He also made clever use of implicit metaphors which constitute a more subtle type of metaphor, it avoids the construction “A is B”; instead it says, “A has the following strange qualities (implied: the qualities belong to B).
Shakespeare also uses metonymy in line 8 when he identifies sleep as “Death’s second self”; sleep is not equivalent or a part of death, but shares some qualities with death, such that to think of one is to think of the other.
The sonnet is a typical Elizabethan sonnet. With 14 lines written in iambic pentameter, three quatrains and a couplet rhyming abab cdcd efef gg. The sonnet well fills and fits the three quatrains and single couplet. Each quatrain makes up a single sentence, a separate thought about the theme, each introduced by the words (in me). This sequence of three different images culminates the final couplet that gives a sort of lesson about what this meditation on ageing should mean to the person to whom the poem is address
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