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

Updated on October 11, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

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


Introduction and Tex 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 the 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.

How like a winter hath my absence been

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

First Quatrain: "How like a winter hath my absence been"

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 the 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: "And yet this time remov’d was summer’s time"

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 the Muse.

Third Quatrain: "Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me"

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 the Muse who was absent.)

The Couplet: "Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer"

Conversely, however, if the birds do manage to emit a tune or two, those songs lack the brilliance that they exude while the Muse is present.

Even the leaves "look pale and "dread[ ] the winter’s near." The speaker has shown that his creativity is limited without the 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 the Muse permanently, and thus, he prefers her presence; he prefers her useful guidance that keeps him in touch with his spiritual nature.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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