A commentary on Shakespeare’s 97th sonnet
Sonnet 97 has a famous opening line, but the rest of the poem remains less famous. Yet the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Don Paterson have both expressed admiration for it, so the sonnet is worth closer analysis and explication. Before we proceed to a few words of commentary on Sonnet 97, here’s a reminder of the poem.
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time;
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans, and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute:
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer,
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.
To paraphrase Sonnet 97: ‘When I was absent from you, although it was literally summer, it felt like winter, because I was apart from you. I have felt cold, the days have appeared dark, and it feels like December everywhere I look, with everything bare and empty. Yet when I was removed from you it was summer – or late summer, early autumn – with the fruitfulness of nature one associates with that time of year. It’s a bit like a lord’s widow, who fell pregnant with her husband’s child but who was made a widow before the child was born. Yet all this abundance seemed to me to be like an fatherless child; because you are free to enjoy summer with all its pleasures, while I – because away from you – have to dwell in winter, when no birds sing. Or, if they do sing, it’s such a sad song that it makes all the leaves on the trees pale, because they dread the approach of winter.’
Such a more detailed summary or paraphrase might be further reduced to: ‘It may be summer, but since I’m away from you, my beloved, it feels like winter to me.’ This, in a sentence, is the meaning of Sonnet 97. Simple and straightforward, although some of the imagery (especially the talk of pregnancy and abundance) needs careful attention. Indeed, this middle section of the sonnet reads like a precursor to a poem by that great follower and admirer of Shakespeare, John Keats, whose ‘To Autumn’ celebrates the bountiful time of the year that is autumn (rather than being sad because of an absent love). Another poem we might fruitfully compare Shakespeare’s with is an even earlier sonnet in English, the Earl of Surrey’s ‘The Soote Season’, in which the poet laments the fact that he feels sad during the summer, when the whole world is frolicking and growing and being reborn. This discordance between the outer world of nature and the inner world of melancholy the poet is feeling is a poignant one in both poems.
It may be us over-analysing Sonnet 97, but we detect an edge to the language being used: ‘bareness’ in l. 4, for instance, is perilously close to barrenness, harking back to the Sonnets’ earlier preoccupation with procreation, fertility, and (poetic) sterility, and prefiguring the contrasting images of fruitfulness which follow in this poem. Similarly, ‘increase’ almost rhymes with ‘decrease’, but instead we are met with the even bleaker ‘decease’ – not just decline but death. This wintry time, although it exists only in the poet’s mind (and heart), is a dead time.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 97 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’, ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’, and ‘Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing’.
If you’re studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and looking for a detailed and helpful guide to the poems, we recommend Stephen Booth’s hugely informative edition, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene). It includes all 154 sonnets, a facsimile of the original 1609 edition, and helpful line-by-line notes on the poems.
You might also enjoy this list of myths and misconceptions about Shakespeare’s life.