Analysing William Shakespeare's Sonnet 73

Updated on November 21, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Shakespeare's Sonnet: Introduction

Sonnets are invariably personal. Intense subjectivity is found to form a key character in sonnet writing. Regarding the personal character of Shakespeare's sonnets, there is, no doubt, a host of controversies, yet their subjective notes are neither ignorable nor disputable. In some of them, Shakespeare's personal moods and feelings are remarkably intense and intimate.

The sonnet “That time of year thou mayst in me behold (Sonnet 73)” is a specific instance to testify to the intense subjectivity of the Shakespearean sonnet. It is particularly marked with the poet's personal moods as also his ideals of life and love. It belongs to the group of sonnets in which the poet gives out much of his personal mood of depression caused by various factors.

Sonnet 73: The Octave

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

The Sestet

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Theme and Mood

The theme of the sonnet is tender and touching. The poet here anticipates the time when he will have physical decay and decline leading to his death. In a gloomy and pensive mood, he anticipates how the ravages of time will mark him and doom him in his age which is to come in no time.

But this depressing thought of the poet is lightened by his firm faith in the consolatory and restorative power of love. The poet rises above his mental depression and despondency as he realizes that the love of his friend will grow stronger with the gradual decay of his body. The poem, thus, presents along with the poet’s personal despondency in his age, his ardent faith in the restorative effect of love.

The poem, as noted already, has a profoundly personal touch and this has made it particularly appealing. The poet's mood of depression here is supposed to be an echo of his utter frustration of life at the time to which the sonnet belongs. Whatever that maybe, a stark but sincere tone of pessimism dominates the poem. The poet is haunted with a deep sense of inevitable decay and death. His tone appears intimate to his heart.

The last leaves of autumn cling on to the branches. An image Shakespeare uses to communicate his impending decay and sense of despair
The last leaves of autumn cling on to the branches. An image Shakespeare uses to communicate his impending decay and sense of despair | Source

Pessimism is not the only theme of the poem. The poet’s outlook bears antithetical elements; his pessimism is counterbalanced by his optimistic idealization of love. He feels quite confident of the greater love of his friend with the decline of his health. He asserts that his friend will be led to love him more because he will pass away ere long – “To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.” This is the characteristic Shakespearean faith in the power of love heard in many of his sonnets.

Imagery in Sonnet 73

What specifically characterizes the poem is Shakespeare's imagery – particularly his "nature imagery". He is found to draw here a number of graphic images to describe his anticipated physical decay. In the first place, he compares himself to the bare ‘boughs’ which ‘shake against the cold’, and on which ‘late the sweet birds sang.’ He also brings in the metaphor of ‘ruined choirs’ to indicate the ruin of his heart in utter loneliness in the time to come. The boughs appear like the empty church after a service, symbolizing loneliness and despair. The poet also likens himself to the ‘twilight’ that ‘fadeth in the West’ ‘after sunset’. He precisely develops the imagery of ‘black night’ to have the analogy of death which is to come soon up on him. The poet’s third analogy is the dying hearth that occasionally gives out sparks. Like the fire that is consumed by the ashes of the log which originally made it, the poet thinks himself to be consumed in his own youthful restlessness.

The images communicate not just emptiness or despair, but also the lingering of a faint note of hope, of an eventual redemptive spring. All such images are aptly and happily drawn and bear out Shakespeare's craftsmanship as a word delineator.

The burnt out hearth still has fiery sparks submerged in ash. Shakespeare uses this image to communicate the lingering passion within his tired heart
The burnt out hearth still has fiery sparks submerged in ash. Shakespeare uses this image to communicate the lingering passion within his tired heart

Sonnet 73: A Perfect Specimen of Shakespearean Sonnet

The poem is technically a finished work and well characterizes Shakespeare's genius in the realm of sonnet writing. As a Shakespearean sonnet, it is divided, as usual, into four parts – three quatrains and a concluding couplet. In the quatrains, the poet’s anticipations of his decay and death are presented through various images and reflections. Each quatrain forms a link in the chain of the poet’s thought that has a smooth and apt development through images, independent yet co-related. In the concluding couplet, the poet sums up his faith in love, as a restorative and enduring force in life. This follows from his reflections in the quatrains.

The sonnet, like other Shakespearean sonnets, has a simple and felicitous diction, and an easy and melodious versification. There are altogether seven rhymes, as opposed to the five of the normal Petrarchan sonnets. Thus is, as usual, written in Iambic pentameter. The structural organization here, as in elsewhere, consists of four parts, three quatrains and a concluding couplet.

In short, the sonnet, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold (Sonnet 73)”, is a grand specimen of the Shakespearean sonnets, stamped with his profound subjectivity and powerful artistry. It is one of his famous sonnets, intimately personal and marvelously poetical.

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A Beautiful Reading of Sonnet 73

© 2017 Monami


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