A reading of a classic Shakespeare sonnet
‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold’ is one of the most widely anthologised sonnets by William Shakespeare, and is often praised as one of the most successfully constructed, and most moving, of all the Sonnets. Before we proceed to a brief analysis of Sonnet 73, here’s a reminder of the poem.
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 nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
Before we roll up our sleeves and analyse Sonnet 73, here’s a brief paraphrase of its meaning: ‘Fair Youth, you can see in me a reflection of the autumnal and wintry time of year, when yellow leaves, or none, or few, hang upon the trees; the branches of such trees are like the choirs in monasteries, since they were once home to “sweet birds” who sang, but are now bare. In me, you see the evening reflected, when the sunset fades into the western sky, before the sun is taken away by the night, which is itself a reflection of death, which seals everyone and everything in rest. In me you see such a sunset reflected, a burnt-out case and a far cry from his youth, which is my death-bed and funeral pyre, where I will be devoured by that which gave me life. You observe all this, and it makes your love for me stronger, because you love me more knowing that you must lose me one day.’
Sonnet 73 is famous in the world of literary criticism because of William Empson’s close analysis of the image in the fourth line, in the opening pages of his landmark book Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). Empson wrote that the comparison between branches of trees and choirs of a monastery works:
Because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choirboys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the Protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of Puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions; these reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind. Clearly this is involved in all such richness and heightening of effect, and the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.
Such an analysis is a testament to Empson’s skills in close analysis, but also to the genius of Shakespeare.
The couplet of Sonnet 73 has been analysed in rather different ways by critics. The most common interpretation of these concluding lines might be summarised as we’ve done so above, in our paraphrase of the sonnet’s meaning. But Don Paterson, in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, favours a subtler reading of this closing couplet: ‘You see all this; and that must mean your love is pretty strong, if you can love this decrepit thing as well as you do, especially when you know death will take it from you soon.’ Both interpretations of the couplet work, so it depends on what we feel is the most likely meaning in light of the rest of the sonnet, and the Sonnets as a whole. But then it’s not as if these two interpretations are mutually exclusive: the Fair Youth may love the poet because he knows death will rob us all of our loved ones, but he may love the poet even more because he knows that such an old codger is not long for this world. (It is odd, though, reading Shakespeare’s declarations of his approaching old age and mortality: he was probably only in his early thirties when he penned Sonnet 73, and would live for another twenty years – and even then, he died not having reached his biblical threescore years and ten.)
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 73 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’, ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’, and ‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced’.