The meaning of Shakespeare’s spring sonnet
‘From you have I been absent in the spring’ is not up there with Shakespeare’s classic opening lines, such as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ or even ‘How like a winter hath my absence been!’ But it’s an intriguing sonnet that deserves closer analysis, so let’s dive among the birds, flowers, and Saturn with the Bard and find out how his spring’s going.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud pied April dress’d in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
One of the sonnets addressed to the ‘Fair Youth’, this poem sees Shakespeare bemoaning the fact that he could not appreciate all the beauty of spring around him because he was absent from the young man. As a consequence, spring seemed like a winter to him. April may have ‘put a spirit of youth in every thing’ – the word ‘youth’ reminding us, perhaps, that Shakespeare is addressing a ‘fair youth’ whose spirit he much admires – but for the Bard, it might as well be winter because he cannot take delight in the flowers or the birdsong (‘lays of birds’).
Even ‘heavy Saturn’ – the planet whence we derive the adjective ‘saturnine’, denoting heavy and sullen sluggishness – is cavorting about with the springtime, but Shakespeare is unable to join in. The beauty of spring is all round – the remarkable whiteness of the lily, the fiery red (‘vermilion’) of the red, red rose – but Shakespeare notices none of it. Such beautiful symbols of springtime are only copying the beauty of the Fair Youth – who is absent from the poet, and so the cause of his unhappiness because they are apart.
There isn’t much to this sonnet: it’s one of the most instantly comprehensible of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and, perhaps for that reason, not entirely satisfactory. It seems a little too easy. But it’s nice enough and expresses its sentiments using clear, appropriate imagery, even if it’s not especially complex in terms of the human emotions it taps into. Even great albums have filler. The Queen Is Dead has ‘Never Had No One Ever’. Shake-speare’s Sonnets has Sonnet 98. And like that dud Smiths track, it’s still a pleasant piece of lyricism.