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The swelling energy and particularization of imagery of season, time, and light both complement and counter the speaker’s fading body in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Moving from metaphors of abstract bleakness to those of specific vitality and passion within and across each quatrain, Shakespeare’s sonnet draws on the paradox of his decaying body that houses a still-breathing soul to fashion yet another parallel metaphor, that of his relationship with his youthful lover.
The first quatrain examines the sonnet’s most general metaphoric description of the speaker’s aging body, Autumn.
Shakespeare fails to specify even what season he is referring to in the opening line; it is known only as “That time of the year thou mayst in me behold” (1). That “me” comes after “thou” and near the end of the line also signifies the lack of detail the speaker places on himself in the first quatrain. In the second and third quatrains this is inverted, as “In me thou seest” becomes a more insistent and refined initiation (5, 9).
Shakespeare continues the conceit of subject refinement as he first describes Autumn’s “yellow leaves” as simply existing, then concedes there may be “none,” then finally settles on “few” (2). This current of definition develops two themes, that Shakespeare believes he still has a few leaves left on his tree of life, and that the poetic eye of his lover can amplify the energy of even a bare tree. Still, the monosyllabic, caesura-laden intonations of the line cannot hide the speaker’s automaton-like march to death.
Shakespeare finishes his description of the leaves, which “hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold” (2-3). “Hang” is both a technical and a metaphoric enjambment that magnifies the speaker’s dependency and physical weakness. Yet even in this comparison of feebleness another transition advances the line from the stale and general to the energetic (albeit a flailing energy) and particular: we move from motionless, commonplace leaves to “those boughs,” distinct ones, which “shake against the cold” and do their best to fight off death. “Bare ruined choirs” is an allusion to the monasteries ransacked by Henry VIII, and even in this line of mortality there is an accumulation of passion; from the first word of “Bare” to the last word “sang,” the speaker’s juxtaposition of man-made desolation with the absence of natural vitality paradoxically grows in passion as he bemoans the dying around him. This propels him into the next quatrain in which, as noted before, he immediately announces himself as the subject, thus further intensifying his and his lover’s scrutiny of his fading.
Indeed, fading is the ostensible metaphor used in the second quatrain. Shakespeare transfers from the most broad, season, to a more exclusive day, just as he moved from “yellow leaves” to “those boughs.” And, again, he alters his definition of the time of day from an approximate “twilight of such day” to the more descriptive and precise line, “As after sunset fadeth in the west” (5-6). The intensification of poetic energy coupled with his physical dulling now takes on a self-loathing tone; whereas before his lover “mayst behold,” another hazy, inexact line, now he definitely “seest” (5). The powerlessness the speaker feels in his struggle grows here. In the first quatrain his boughs shook against the cold choirs; now he allows his light to fade: “Which by and by black night doth take away,/ Death’s second self that seals up all in rest” (7-8). The “by and by” implies the passage of time and his passive role in the diminishing of light, while the strong alliteration of “b’s” sound spiteful, as if he watches night rob him of his life from the sidelines. “Death’s second self,” or sleep, also uses alliteration to great effect, the slippery “s’s” echoing his poisonous descent into death. Yet his increased inactivity in the matter continues the paradoxical theme of sinking imagery with stirring lyrical energy?”Death’s second self that seals up all in rest” certainly has more fire beneath its words than do the original yellow leaves. Shakespeare makes more explicit this connection in the next quatrain as he carves a final metaphor which explains the duality, that of a soul suffocating under the weight of his failing body.
Shakespeare reprises the “In me thou seest” opener, and its repetitiveness now seems more urgent and, pushing the theme, more specified (9). Now his lover’s eye is ever more finely-tuned, able to see the “glowing of such fire” after lyrics of dark vagueness from the first two quatrains (9). The fire, Shakespeare’s metaphor for his soul that flickers with its dying embers, nonetheless contains some animation in the midst of “his youth’s” expired “ashes” (10). This ties in the previous oppositions of animation suppressed by lethargy?his soul is “Consumed with that which it was nourished by,” or, in other words, suffocates under its body’s dead weight (12). This quatrain of expiration is one of the few that deviates from rigid iambic meter; “As [weak] the [weak] death- [strong] bed [strong]” follows a pyrrhic with a spondee to emphasize the inevitable fatality, for we are told that the fire “must expire” (10). The rough verbal shifts of “with that which it was” stress the mechanical manner in which his once vibrant soul now perishes. The work of declaring the speaker’s embattled soul’s clash with his degenerating body is done; in typical Shakespearean sonnet fashion, he saves the couplet for a conclusion that reflects upon both himself and his audience.
Shakespeare changes from “thou seest” to “This thou perceiv’st,” and the effect carries on the progression of his lover’s eye sharpening from perhaps beholding to seeing and observing and now to perception and understanding (13). Shakespeare’s tone in the couplet is grateful?”which makes thy love more strong”; that his lover can disregard the corpse the speaker’s body has disintegrated into is a source of awe for him (13). The contradiction in their respective views of his body, then, matches the previous contradictions of living soul and dying body. This strength that his lover affords the speaker brings new meaning to the line “Consumed with that which it was nourished by.” Perhaps Shakespeare fed off his lover’s love to the point when his own discontentment with his aging outweighed the youthful support he received. This, then, adds a twist to the couplet, and the final line, “To love that well, which thou must leave ere long” resonates only partly of gratitude, and mostly of self-deprecation and bewilderment at his lover’s fidelity. However, this seems less likely than the conclusion the speaker has drawn, that he is fortunate to have someone for whom a lover’s bodily flaws only impel him to fan the flames of his lover’s slightly lambent soul. As with many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the couplet (save one word) is composed of monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words which drive his point home with finality.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, taken in a sequence, touch on many themes, namely those of Time, Love, and Poetry. The poetry is not an explicit subject in “Sonnet 73,” Shakespeare’s soul, it could easily be argued, is poetry, and he wrote the sonnets just before his retirement to Stratford (and seven years before his death). He was forty-five years old when he penned them, much more ancient in those days then now, and he may have felt his poetic soul had been spent. Of course, most poets would gladly trade their living poetic souls for a fraction of Shakespeare’s dead one, but the high standards he held himself to seem outlandish. Only his lover can fill in the beauty he feels he has lost on his own; that it is his lover who “must leave ere long” and not Shakespeare illustrates the power his youthful companion held over him. No wonder, then, that in his declining years, the great poet held on dearly to one whose eternal summer would never fade.
Abrams et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition, vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
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