In honor of the commemoration of William Shakespeare's birthday, I thought I'd share Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold"), which is set in late fall. The commentary is a reprise from the last time I posted this poem, in February of 2008.
by William Shakespeare
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 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
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.
Form: It's a Shakespearean sonnet, written in iambic pentameter and rhymed ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
Discussion: Broken down in the crassest of ways, the speaker here spends four lines comparing himself to a tree in winter, another four comparing himself to twilight (with night encroaching), and yet another four in comparing himself to a dying fire, with an overt reference to a death-bed in line 11. The final couplet is, to me, the real volta here, where Shakespeare ceases to speak of "me" and shifts to "thou", and the topic shifts from metaphors for death and aging to a direct address about love and parting. Despite a fairly bleak opening, I find hope in this poem because of its last lines, which speak of love strengthening and which can, I believe, be read in a carpe diem* kind of way.
Many folks read the poem literally as one intended to be "spoken" by an older person to someone much younger, and I have to say I think that's an entirely fair reading. The poem can also be read as being about the speaker's creative life: his work was once compared to the singing of sweet birds, but now is diminished; his star is fading; his creative powers are nearly used up. I have to say that while that second interpretation is one that's very popular with the "write a bullshit essay for school" crowd, I don't believe for moment that Shakespeare intended for the poem to be about his art, even though one can freely analyze it that way and likely get an A on the essay in doing so.
No, my take is that Shakespeare was most likely feeling neglected or a bit unappreciated by a lover and was trying to gain their sympathy (or heap coals upon them) by invoking thoughts of his death. It's all very melodramatic and over the top, and similar to what a lot of teenagers might do (even though Shakespeare was probably in his twenties or thirties when this was written), yet it rings true in a way that making these about Shakespeare's death or dying art do not. First, there's his age to consider - he was not an old man when he wrote this sonnet. Second, there's his art to take into account: he was still growing and writing and succeeding. In either case, personal experience/autobiography seem out of the question. Unless, of course, you believe, as I do, that Will was trying to manipulate someone by preying on their emotions.
Sonnet 73 is part of a quartet of sonnets that deal with aspects of death, and are usually read together. The quarter is composed of sonnets 71-74, and most folks read them as an older man (most believe Shakespeare himself) considering his own mortality, and writing poems for a young male friend he leaves behind him. Why male? Beats me. There's nothing in the poems overtly indicative that such is the case, although references to the other person facing public scrutiny might be taken that way (and many scholars believe that it was Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare's patron, to whom these poems were addressed). It seems to me far more likely that these lines were written by Shakespeare in order to manipulate a woman he knew, or else written for Southampton so that he could share them with a mistress in order to try to make her feel sorry for him. Or perhaps to try to get Elizabeth I to pardon him for schtupping one of her ladies-in-waiting without her permission or for backing Essex's rebellion against the Queen.
Sonnet 71 takes a pious martyr-like tone and urges the surviving loved one not to mourn overly much, because it's not the dying person's desire to see him/her unhappy, nor does the speaker want the survivor to be "mocked" for their sentimental mourning: "I'm just thinking of you, dear; I would never want you to be unhappy. When I'm dead." Sonnet 72 reads like a dejected, almost petulant, lover, speaking of how unworthy he is of love and undeserving of praise, and exhorting the survivor (after his death), not to heap praise on the speaker because it would be a lie: "I'm a mutt, a mongrel, unworthy even of being kicked". Sonnet 73 you've just read, and Sonnet 74 talks about how the dead speaker's body may decay, but his spirit will live on with the loved one he addresses, as memorialized in the lines of his poem: "Don't be sad. Even when I'm dead and my body is being devoured by worms, probably because I've been knifed, and I'm unworthy of being remembered by you, you'll have this sonnet about me being dead to remember me by." (Sorry for the overly long description of Sonnet 74, but really, the lines about worms and being knifed and how base the writer is were too good not to mention.)
* seize the day