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Shakespeare Sonnet 73: "That time of year thou mayst in me behold"

Updated on April 26, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 73

This much anthologized Shakespeare Sonnet 73 is often interpreted only as a speaker describing the aging process of his body. But this complex sonnet actually works on two levels: one describes the body's aging while the other once again bemoans the writer's curse of blocking.

This sonnet does, in fact, appear in the series of sonnets dedicated to the speaker's muse, his talent, his poems. It is not likely that he would simply abandon that theme to focus solely on the mundane subject of an aging physical body.

This speaker is too clever and too strongly dedicated to writing unique poems to fall so low as to create a drama simply about a physical function. Thus, the speaker once again creates a unique view of how it feels to experience the worse curse of any writer.

Sonnet 73

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 ruined 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.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Reading of Sonnet 73

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 73 employs three different metaphors, a tree, a day, and a fire, to describe the effect of writer's block on the speaker's ability to create his sonnets.

First Quatrain: Addressing the Sonnet

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 ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In the first quatrain of Shakespeare Sonnet 73, the speaker addresses his belovèd sonnet, remarking that it may see that the strength of his talent is shaking again through another period of writer's block. The speaker compares his blocked talent to a tree in autumn losing its leaves: "yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang." The tree in summer stood tall as its leaves began to unfurl and deepen into summer leaves of sturdy green. Now as writer's block falls onto the poets shoulders, his leaves have turned yellow with lack of ink.

Personifying his compositions, the speaker's poems' literary hair has thinned against the on-set of that dreaded curse for writers, and the few strands they possess left are turning gray through disuse. The gray hair that once was brown/black is likened to yellow leaves that once were green. And like the tree’s branches trembling in the cold breezes of winter coming on, the speaker's penchant for verse seems to shiver in the cold weather brought on by his lack of poetic inspiration. The speaker's poetry is becoming "[b]are ruin’d choirs," though it used to be filled with beautiful expression akin to the songs of "sweet birds."

As the dreaded writer's block overtakes the speaker's ability to create his little dramas, he must use all of his resources to stave off that invader which makes him perceive himself and his creations as that tree moving into autumn—its best, productive days in the past spring and summer seasons.

Second Quatrain: Blocking is Like a Tree and a Day

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.

After comparing this recent, onset of writer's block to a tree in late autumn, the speaker then compares it to a day. The blocking has caused him to feel that he is in the "twilight of [that] day," the time when the sun "fadeth in the west."

When the speaker's full inspiration and full flowing writing is in progress, he feels that the time of day is noon, when the sun is highest and the ability to see is keenest. The blocked ability to continue his creations causes him to feel that he is experiencing that part of the day that is becoming dark.

The speaker expresses metaphorically the approaching of night time for the day as the time when soon everything sleeps. The days gives way to "black night." And black night bring on "Death’s second self," or sleep. While the speaker does not wish to sleep, he wishes to be able to write his poems, he knows that it is likely that he will have to sleep in order to gain some strength to fight the blocking that is occurring.

Third Quatrain: Blocking Like a Fire

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

In the third quatrain, the speaker again introduces a new metaphor: this time he compares his seemingly ebbing ability to compose to a fire that, "on the ashes of his youth doth lie." The times when he was freely and productively composing represents youth that once burned brightly.

However, during these times of blocking, it seem that the speaker's flame may be dwindling, and the very things that feeds his youthful, vibrant flame are being consumed by the low-burning fire of writer's block.

The Couplet: Faith in the Muse

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Nevertheless, the speaker knows that his belovèd muse that accompanies his talent is still affording him love and that love is becoming even stronger as he continues to battle the fatigue brought on by that dreaded writer's curse. The speaker credits his fine talent, his inspiring muse, and his strong ability to compose with the capability of continuing.

By personifying those creative entities, the speaker can thus perceive that his love is well protected and growing even stronger—despite the fact that it may in future seem to abandon him again.

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 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.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

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.

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."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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