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Just This Side of Death: An Interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnet #73
Glossary a must for the student of Shakespeare. Think of it as your Shakespearean to (modern) English dictionary.
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 reminds us of the inevitability and permanence of death and of how that reality should compel us to love fiercely before our time is over. Shakespeare expertly employs classic elements of literature to make his point. His masterful use of imagery creates a vivid setting. By using figurative language throughout most of the poem - interspersed with just the right amount of literal word usage - he accomplishes a powerful, complex, and timeless piece of writing.
Through strong images, rife with symbolism, Shakespeare paints a picture of nature at its most bleak – using this setting to represent the way we view old age and dying. Through the poem, our narrator speaks of his advanced age and of his approaching death to a beloved individual. He describes his own physical condition as like the very end of fall, just on the verge of winter, “when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang (Shakespeare 1056)." Right off, the poem is given more depth through Shakespeare’s use of figurative rather than literal language. Images of autumn’s end create at once a bleak and chilly sort of setting. A tree, stripped bare of nearly all of its leaves, is a powerful representation of the narrator. The leaves, its worldly raiment - the very symbol of its vitality and youth, are all but gone. In their wake, there are only “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang (Shakespeare 1056)." This seems a wistful remembrance, spoken in the past tense, of youthful glory and beauty as if to say “I wasn’t always like this.”
He continues “In me thou see’st the twilight of such a day,” - not only is he in a stage of life likened to a day at autumn’s last gasp; he is at the very end of that day (Shakespeare 1056). The end of the end. We are fed more images of dark abysmal, as he likens his condition to the black night slowly stealing away the last bits of sunset, “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest” (Shakespeare 1056). Yet, he himself will not wake come sunrise, nor will his “seasons” cycle back to Spring. It seems important to note that Shakespeare has capitalized the word Death – making it a proper noun rather than just an idea or a state of being. Death becomes real, tangible. Here, literal use is interwoven with archetypal use of the term, giving more depth and complexity to the idea of death.
Next, he likens his condition to a fire on its “deathbed,” again giving us both figurative and literal connotations of death. He lies on the ashes of his youth, with all that ash represents. It is burned away and devoid of any real purpose or substance. It is merely a by-product of the original thing – the fire, which would seem to signify his vitality and youth. Ash cannot be re-ignited and so the “glowing” he describes is certainly his last flickering of physical existence. He is “consumed by that which (he) was nourished by” – devoured by the fire that was his very being (Shakespeare 1056). This final metaphor is apt. Fire, unlike days or seasons, is not cyclical and will not start over or be renewed automatically.
Shakespeare then pulls out of the chilly despair and focuses directly on the recipient of the sonnet. He seems to observe the intensity of love increase on the part of his beloved upon seeing him in such a state. This beloved one is then compelled to “love that well which thou must leave ere long (Shakespeare 1056)." Speaking here in a direct manner devoid of metaphor or symbol, he punctuates the poem’s truth. All who live will eventually die. Shakespeare seems here to implore us to examine that simple and terrible fact. It is as true at this moment as it was in 1609, when he wrote the Sonnet. What else, then, can we do with this knowledge other than to live and love deeply and with regard to the finite nature of life?
Sonnet 73 is a compelling piece of work that speaks through commanding images associated with cold, sleep, darkness, and ultimately death. It transcends time, with its symbols of nature and fire carrying much the same meanings and associations now as when it was written. The use of figurative language throughout most of the poem makes the gravity of the situation come through much more effectively and the small injections of literal terminology only serve to cement what Shakespeare’s haunting symbols have already told us.