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Analysis of Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, signature and known portraits.
William Shakespeare, signature and known portraits. | Source

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd 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
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Please note that: thou means you and thy means your.

In line 10 his means its, and the archaic ere means before in the last line.

Introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnet 73

Sonnet 73 is one of four William Shakespeare wrote on the subject of time and the aging process. It's a thoughtful, reflective sonnet, the voice of a person getting older, aimed at a partner whose love the speaker obviously needs. So you have to ask the questions - Is the speaker afraid of losing this love? Is there a kind of manipulation going on?

You can imagine Shakespeare writing this in late autumn (fall) or early winter when the leaves are turning yellow, orange and red, when cold weather makes the bare branches tremble and summer is long gone. The speaker hints that the music has changed along with the season.

Cold, ruined, twilight, night, Death, ashes, deathbed, expire, consumed...words which signal strongly of life in its latter stages. But, despite these darker tones, sonnet 73 isn't such a sombre read. We all age, we slow down, we mature, but we hang on in there.

As you progress through the sonnet there comes the wonderful turn at line 13 - following the build up - this poem is all about the strength of someone's love and the love between two people who have known each other a long time. This is deep-seated, spiritual love, nothing to do with the physical.

Even though we inevitably have to let go of a loved one as their life comes to a natural end, we should try and focus on the bond of love that exists. There is a kind of proof, reflected in the seasons and the days, that love stays strong.

Poetic Devices and Rhyme Scheme

This 14 line English or Shakespearean sonnet has a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg, making up 3 quatrains and an end couplet. Rhymes are full :fire/expire and strong/long, by/lie. Assonance can be found in lines 2,3 and 13 and alliteration in 7 and 8. Syntactically it's pretty straightforward.

Sonnet 73 Line By Line

This is a steady, composed sonnet. Each quatrain is a statement given by the speaker, relating age to the seasons and the natural world. Note the end stop at lines 4, 8 and 12. The speaker, a male or female, is laying down three personal observations, mirrored in the natural environment.

Line 1 is a clear reference to time and its relation to the aging process. It's as if the speaker is saying 'I'm growing old, that much is clear.' The time of year is the season of fall (autumn) or winter. It's iambic, with five stresses, the common meter (metre) of the English sonnet.

Lines 2-4 .The speaker is reminding a partner, lover, wife, that he's no longer youthful like Spring, but losing it, just like the trees are losing their leaves. To reinforce this fact the metaphor is extended to include branches and a cold, bare ruined choir - part of a church where the choristers sing - and he's looking back, perhaps to the summer when birds sang.

Lines 5-8 deepen the sense that here is someone past their prime, not as bright and vibrant. The natural world is invoked again, this time with sun and sky. The speaker is comparing himself to the end of day, a time of quiet, a time of rest.

Things are winding down and evening will soon be turning into night. 'Death's second self' is a fascinating repeat of the commonest vowel e - assonance - a useful poetic device Shakespeare excelled at. This confirms the idea of activity ceasing and a finality approaching. The word seal brings to mind the coffin (casket) or tomb.

Lines 9-12 again start with 'In me' emphasising the personal, the one to one observation. Yet, as always with Shakespeare, the metaphorical is the bridge to the universal. If the second quatrain contained the sun, this third one gives the reader the pure element of fire, human spirit, which, as life inevitably draws to a close, fades. Line 12 sums it up - the fire consumes when it formerly fed.

Lines 13,14 form a concluding couplet. You know I'm old, we both know that the strong love you have will continue even if you (or I) have to leave.

Conclusion and Questions To Ask

What feelings do you get when you read through this sonnet? Does it make you feel happy or sad? Is it set in the present, past or future? The speaker appears to be a bit down because he or she is getting older, repeatedly concentrating on their image and the effects of time.

In me...in me...in me.

How does this relate to the times you live in? Do we not have obsessions with the way we look? Perhaps the speaker is saying that, no matter the looks or the age, love conquers all.

Sonnet 73 - A Clear, Immaculate Voice

© 2016 Andrew Spacey

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