Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73

Here’s just a little something that I wrote up about Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet for my British Literature class. I am a little bit skeptical of putting it up online, but I’m just gonna go for it. It starts off a bit rocky, I think, but it gets better as it progresses.

The prominence of nature in Renaissance poetry is undeniably used as a reflection of the speaker’s inner feelings; nature, therefore, often illustrates the speaker’s thoughts on a particular subject. Many of William Shakespeare’s sonnets demonstrate the beauty and power of nature. In Sonnet 73, this is certainly the case with the way that nature relates to the speaker’s perception of aging and death. Nature appears throughout the sonnet and does so in a way that helps the reader understand not only the workings—or the nature—of nature, but how nature defines and ultimately defies the speaker. Shakespeare utilizes metaphors to separate the sonnet into three quatrains, and then concludes with the tradition couplet. The cyclicality of nature does not, and cannot, reflect the life of a human, but it does give hope to the speaker; through the metaphoric use of nature, Shakespeare illustrates the passage of time, which the speaker is reluctant to accept, and the repercussions of aging in relation to his lover.
    The first of these metaphors details the changing of seasons, and, more specifically, dramatizes the season of winter. Although the speaker finds the harshness of winter nearly overbearing, there is still some hope left in his life. Shakespeare writes, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” (ll. 1-2). Upon reading these first two lines, two striking aspects emerge. The first, which appears throughout the sonnet, is the speaker’s use of “thou” and a subsequent notion of seeing or looking at the speaker. The speaker tells the reader that this perception is of his lover; however, it seems that this perception is of the speaker himself, and not of his lover. Perception becomes a much more important aspect by the sonnet’s end, and certainly helps to elucidate the speaker’s intentions. The second aspect revolves around hope, as witnessed in the second line. The speaker almost changes his mind when depicting the tree and its remaining leaves, noting that there could still be a few leaves of life left. He is not gone yet, and a touch of youthfulness still remains a part of him. This youthfulness becomes even more clear in the following two lines: “Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” (ll. 3-4). Shakespeare illustrates quite a rich visualization of this tree, which is symbolic of the speaker. He still clings on to his youth, but he must fight against the bitter cold winds of age. The boughs of the tree correlate to the speaker’s limbs: the aging process is physically affecting his body, and it is quite obvious that his time on earth is nearing the end (while also proposing a disease where the body shakes, such as Parkinson’s). The “bare ruined choirs” suggests the section of the church reserved for singing. However, the choir is noticeably absent in this case; the speaker is exposed to the harshness of winter, becoming naked with almost a sense of disfigurement, and no divine singing exists—his beautiful youthfulness has sloughed off like the majority of the tree’s leaves. The “sweet birds” resemble others’ affections toward the speaker, but these divinely sung affections are absent. Although there is an undeniably sad quality of the sonnet, there is still a modicum of hope in that spring will soon follow, and the tree—the speaker—will regain life. The outlook of the speaker’s life is dismal, but by using the cycle of the seasons, Shakespeare allows for that tiniest bit of hope that still remains with the speaker.
    The second quatrain displays the passing of a single day, with the main focus on twilight. Again, the cyclicality of nature reappears: the sun will inevitably set, but it will also inevitably rise the following day. Shakespeare writes, “In me thou seest the twilight of such a day / As after sunset fadeth in the west;” (ll. 5-6). The sun diminishes and night takes over, and the speaker believes his lover is noticing the progression of aging. Again, the speaker places the perception onto this fair youth, but his words are really those of self-perception: the speaker knows his life—his light—is fading. The speaker continues, “Which by and by black night doth take away, / Death’s second self that seals up all in rest” (ll. 7-8). The black night continuously reappears “by and by” and takes away the remaining life and youthfulness of the speaker; he recognizes this daily occurrence, and even though he does not wish for this to occur, the cycle of nature reappears. The sun will set, but it will also rise, and that brings some slight hope for the speaker’s situation. A prominent nighttime activity, that of sleep, appears in line 8. “Death’s second self” is symbolic of that sleep because it produces something similar to that of death. The body becomes immobilized during sleep, and that immobilization is obviously apparent in death. This sleep “seals up all in rest,” meaning that once put to sleep, the speaker feels there is no possibility for regaining his life. This image evoked is that of the final nail in the coffin, with little, if any, hope left. Everything in the speaker’s life is sealed up in this unending sleep, and that does not bode well for any lengthy relationship with his lover. In this second quatrain, the speaker becomes a little more serious; the sense of hope that was readily apparent in the first quatrain is nearly nonexistent in the second. A day is still cyclical, however, and so there is a modicum of hope that still remains with the speaker. This metaphor is smaller in size (being that a day is shorter than a season), but the impact remains serious as the hope slides into nothingness.
    The last quatrain illustrates the complete absence of hope in the completely non-cyclic metaphor of a fire. The speaker changes to a more permanent metaphor, and that leaves the reader with a sense of sadness and despair. The intensity of the last quatrain is more significant and prominent than in the previous two; the intensity and power has been building up, and the speaker whole-heartedly and truthfully recognizes his time is almost through. Shakespeare writes, “In me thou seest 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” (9-12). Switching to a non-cyclical metaphor gives a finality to the speaker’s thoughts on aging. Again, the speaker places the perception onto his lover. The speaker is a “glowing” fire, meaning that there are no remaining flames; the coals are still hot and burning, but the youthful vigor of a fire is gone. The loss of youth is plainly obvious in the subsequent line: the speaker has been living on the “ashes of his youth,” but that cannot sustain him. Like the fire, it is unimaginably difficult (or impossible) for him to continue his life, except for the love of his lover. A deathbed now appears in this quatrain; it is not the bed of “Death’s second self,” but of death itself. There is no possibility of reemerging in the morning: death is permanent and final, and as the fire expires so does the speaker. The use of the word expire is interesting. Of course there is the obvious definition of ending and dying, but it also evokes the notion of losing validity. Since the speaker is aging, he views himself as losing his credibility with his lover—it just is not acceptable for him and his fair youth to share this relationship. It is also important to notice that the speaker as a tree in the first quatrain reappears as the completely used log in this quatrain. Although no log is actually present within the text, that connection does make sense. The speaker is only a singular part of his former youthful self, and now that the remains of his youth have turned to ashes, he is essentially knocking on Heaven’s door. The last line suggests another cause of death than some sort of shaking disease, like Parkinson’s. This could be somewhat of a stretch, but the use of “consumed” brings to mind consumption, also known as tuberculosis; of course, it also brings to the forefront a powerful visual of death. The fire is “Consumed with that which it was nourished by,” meaning that the fire is choking on that which once sustained its flame. This dying fire also proposes that the speaker is to some extent at fault. He willingly consumed his youth, or he consumed others’ youth and younger people, for the most part, are no longer attracted to him. By any circumstances, however, there is no hope in this final quatrain. On the vicious vision of death awaits the speaker, and he is not too keen to accept that fate.
    The couplet at the end of 73 is also the turning point of the sonnet. Instead of indirectly placing his perceptions on to his lover, he is now directly speaking to him. Shakespeare writes, “This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well, which thou must leave ere long” (ll. 13-14). The notion of perception directly appears in the thirteenth line, and the speaker addresses that his lover loves him more because the lover is witnessing the speaker’s aging. It is also a plea for a stronger love; the speaker wants his lover to love “well” with the remaining time they have together. The speaker knows his life is almost up, but until that point he wishes his lover would love him beyond all measure before the lover “must leave ere long.” The lover must leave the speaker before long. This brings up an interesting desire for the speaker; one would think the word “lose” would be more fitting because “leave” has a different sort of connotation: there is a deliberate action in leaving someone or something. It is possible, then, that the speaker wants this fair youth to carry on without him and to finish his own life. Until his death, however, the fair youth should love him as much as possible, which gives the reader the slightest bit of hope for the speaker and his lover. This last couplet, however, does not mask the impending death of the speaker, and that lamenting tone carries on after reading.
    The use of nature in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 sets out to accomplish the speaker’s reaction toward his aging and the difficulty he has in accepting it. The metaphoric cycles of the first two quatrains gives a slight sense of hope in that everything will regain life: winter will turn into spring and twilight will soon emerge as dawn. However, with the advent of the fire in the third quatrain, there is an immediacy and sense of dread that washes over the speaker. No matter how hard the speaker tries to cling onto his youth, he cannot; he will grow older and eventually die. Before this, however, he requests that his lover will love him more so than ever. Sonnet 73 evokes a sense of despair, but the only way for the speaker to understand, acknowledge, and accept his impending death, he must begin with these cyclical metaphors; the speaker is processing this information almost as in a stream of consciousness way. He sees a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, but he must wade through the atrocities of aging before he can reach a higher passion with his fair youth.

Sonnet 73

And, for those who’ve never read Sonnet 73, just look up and you can read it. Analyzing literature and poems is just like analyzing film, so that’s why I enjoy doing both. I know it’s kind of lengthy, but this was actually one of my shorter essays. I hope you enjoyed it.

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73

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