William Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 Analysis by Stanza
This poem is about a man who is at the end of his life. The narrator illustrates his old age in the first stanza: “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs which shake against the cold” (lines 2-3). He describes the end of fall and the beginning of winter in these lines. This “time of the year” (line 2) is when living things begin to die during the winter. Like the trees that slowly lose their leaves, the narrator is on his last leg of life.
The trees that have few or no leaves left on them are similar to the image in the fourth line: “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Both the bare, ruined choirs and the trees are places where there once was life. This stanza is important to setting the sonnet with concrete, natural images, which allow the reader to understand that the narrator is aware that he will soon expire.
The first stanza makes an analogy between the narrator’s old age and the time of year just before winter. The second stanza similarly describes his old age through natural images; the second stanza, however, compares his condition to a time of day: “In me thou seest 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” (lines 5-8). The narrator is perceived as a tiny bit of light left in the sky before the darkness erases him. In the first and second stanzas, his death is described as eventual. Yet, in the first stanza, his death could have taken days (or weeks) to come; his death in the second stanza seems more urgent. He describes that he is going to be taken by the night (death), but within an hour or longer.
The third stanza describes the narrator’s eventual death as if it were to occur within minutes. He compares his life to an ember about to be “consumed with that which it was nourished by” (line 12). As the poem continues, the narrator’s death becomes more and more urgent. But whether this death is literal or simply a metaphorical death is a question that must be addressed.
The first stanza promotes an image of what I would analyze as a metaphorical death. Although winter is coming, the living things are simply hibernating. After winter passes, the leaves will grow back. This analysis makes the narrator’s “death” seem temporary. For example, the second stanza contains the word death and yet, because it is described as a setting sun. When the morning comes, the sun will rise. Again, this metaphorical death is temporary.
The third stanza, however, does not promote a temporary, metaphorical death. It describes a dying flame is extinguished by that which was its youth. This death seems much more literal, urgent and direct. It could be analyzed to show that the narrator’s coming death is a result of the way he lived as a youth, yet I am not sure about this idea. What is important to know about this stanza is that it makes his death not only seem more urgent, but more realistic.
The couplet at the end of the sonnet is a direct statement to the youthful man (identified by “his” in the third stanza) that he is speaking to. These final lines state that because the narrator death is inevitable, others will love him more. This sonnet ends much stronger than it begins. Because of the structure of the sonnet, the narrator seems farther away the more one reads it. His death may be metaphorical, but the urgency of the sonnet doesn’t give the reader a chance to find out.