Shakespeare Sonnet 97: "How like a winter hath my absence been"

Updated on May 4, 2018
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

The real "Shakespeare": Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 97

As the speaker in sonnet 97 again experiences a dry spell of writer's block, he fabricates his drama at first blaming his own obtuseness then hinting that, in fact, he believes his muse is away. The speaker then again returns to the position that he cherishes his muse and eagerly awaits her return. He knows his nature will remain dependent on the spiritual guidance that only his soul Muse can offer.

As he compares his dry spells to the season of winter, the speaker then realizes that winter is only a stopping over period on the year's way to spring. He is demonstrating his ability to look on the bright side of any event. And for this speaker, the loss of writing dexterity is likely the worst travesty he can suffer, but instead of allowing himself to wallow in sorrow and anxiety, he gets busy and creates a little drama that will get him through his rough patches.

Sonnet 97

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 every where!
And yet this time remov’d 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 seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d 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.

Reading of Sonnet 97

Commentary

In sonnet 97, the speaker addresses his muse, likening her absence to the bleakness of winter, yet finding renewal as winter ministers to the renewal of spring.

First Quatrain: The Winter Blahs

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 every where!

In the first quatrain of sonnet 97, the speaker reveals to his muse that his latest dry spell has been like experiencing the season of winter. Instead of chastising his muse, however, for abandoning him as he does so often, this time the clever speaker says he is the one who has been absent from her. The speaker has experienced "freezings" with "dark days" that remind him of "December’s bareness." But he admits readily that "pleasure" may come from "the fleeting year." The speaker accepts the waxing and waning of seasonal change, even if he has to complain about it occasionally.

Second Quatrain: The Flow of Creativity

And yet this time remov’d 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:

But then the speaker avers that this time, despite the dreariness of the absence, his creativity seemed to flow unabated; in fact, it "was summer’s time." And the time continued into "teeming autumn" for he became "big with rich increase." Even though his creative spirits felt like "widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease," the speaker has managed to eke out his poems with uncanny dispatch. He dramatizes his status rather boastfully, while preserving his dignity and that of his muse.

Third Quatrain: Leave Me to My Issue

Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute:

Still, the speaker cannot take total pleasure in and assurance for his rich output for "this abundant issue seem’d to me / But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit." Even though he managed to fantasize a summer-like fecundity, the speaker knows that factually "summer and his pleasures wait on thee." The speaker also finds that even the chirping, musical birds seem "mute " with "thou away." (Notice here that he has reversed his claim that he, the speaker, was the one who has been absent; he now reveals that, in fact, it has been his muse who was absent.)

The Couplet: Cheer and Brilliance

Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer,
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.

Conversely, however, if the birds do manage to emit a tune or two, those songs lack the brilliance that they exude while his muse is present. Even the leaves "look pale and "dread[ ] the winter’s near." The speaker has shown that his creativity is limited without his muse.

The speaker wants to declare that he can be as fully creative even in dry spells when writer’s block has settled in like a hard case of the blahs. However, this talented speaker feels that such arrogance might harden the heart of his muse permanently, and thus, he prefers her presence; he prefers her useful guidance that keeps him in touch with his spiritual nature.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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