William Shakespeare – 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 death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed 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.
The sonnet is the third in the group of four which reflect on the onset of age. It seems that it is influenced partly by lines from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the translation by Arthur Golding. However the verbal parallels are somewhat sparse. Shakespeare’s presentation is much more individualistic and cannot easily be attributed to any one mould or influence. It is worth noting that, if the sonnet were written in 1600, Shakespeare would only have been 36, and it is quite probable that it was written before that date. An age that we would not consider to be the threshold of old age. Of course the group of four sonnets, of which this is the third, begins with a putative skirmish with death and finality, so that it is in a sense merely thematic within that group to discuss the autumn of one’s years, which will shortly lead to parting and separation. We can therefore allow that it uses some poetic licence in painting a gloomy portrayal of the withered tree.
Nevertheless it is slightly surprising that the statements are so definite and uncompromising. This is how he is now, it is not some prognostication of decay, or a brief glimpse forwards to some imaginary time. The picture is more like that of age on his death-bed, of the autumn tree, of the onset of night, of the actuality of dying. The thought seems closer to the anonymous 16th. century poem
As ye came from the holy land
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?
which becomes a lament for love’s faithlessness as age comes on.
She hath left me here alone,
All alone, as unknown,
Who sometime did me lead with herself,
And me loved as her own.
What’s the cause that she leaves you alone
And a new way doth take,
That sometime did love you as her own,
And her joy did you make?
I have loved her all my youth,
But now old, as you see:
Love likes not the falling fruit,
Nor the withered tree.
Some lines from The Passionate Pilgrim of 1599, which are often attributed to Shakespeare, are also relevant. (See below). Perhaps Shakespeare was offering this sonnet as a charm to ward off rejection. Perhaps the rejection was already evident and this is just a historical analysis of what he already knows to be the truth, a deja vu of love’s forgetfulness. Or perhaps he genuinely felt that age had stolen a march on him.
From The Passionate Pilgrim.
Crabbed age and youth
Cannot live together:
Youth is full of pleasaunce,
Age is full of care;
Youth like summer morn,
Age like winter weather;
Youth like summer brave,
Age like winter bare.
The 1609 Quarto Version
THat time of yeeare thou maiſt in me behold,
When yellow leaues,or none,or fewe doe hange
Vpon thoſe boughes which ſhake againſt the could,
Bare rn’wd quiers,where late the ſweet birds ſang.
In me thou ſeeſt the twi-light of ſuch day,
As after Sun-ſet fadeth in the Weſt,
Which by and by blacke night doth take away,
Deaths ſecond ſelfe that ſeals vp all in reſt.
In me thou ſeeſt the glowing of ſuch fire,
That on the aſhes of his youth doth lye,
As the death bed,whereon it muſt expire,
Conſum’d with that which it was nurriſht by.
This thou perceu’ſt,which makes thy loue more ſtrong,
To loue that well,which thou muſt leaue ere long.
1. That time of year thou mayst in me beholdYou may observe in me that time of life which is like the time of year when etc. The word behold, meaning ‘to see or to observe’, is mostly literary and not often used nowadays.2. When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hangThe line, by its pauses, almost re-creates the blowing away of the last resistant fading leaves by the autumn wind. Only a few stalwart ones finally remain. Cf. Coleridge
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can. Christabel. 49-50
There is a suggestion also of the faded, yellowing papers with the poet’s lines written on them, as in Sonnet 17:
So should my papers, yellow’d with their age.
The poet is like a tree with his decaying, worn out verses being dispersed in the wind.3. Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,shake against the cold = tremble in anticipation of cold days to come; shiver in the actual cold; shake in the cold blast of the gale. against is used in the sense of ‘in anticipation of, in preparation for’ in Sonnets 49 and 63.4. Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
4. The emendation of Q’s rn’wd quiers to ruined choirs is generally accepted. ‘Choir’ was the spelling adopted from the close of the 17th century. In Shakespeare’s day it was quyre, quire, or quiere. The choir is the part of the church at the top, eastern end, the chancel, where the choristers stood and sang. Shakespeare uses the word seven times, only twice with this meaning.
……The rich stream
Of lords and ladies, having brought the queen
To a prepared place in the choir, fell off
A distance from her; H8.IV.1.62-5. and
Our valour is to chase what flies; our cage
We make a quire, as doth the prison’d bird,
And sing our bondage freely. Cym.III.3.42-4
Elsewhere the meaning is that of a group of singers, presumably choristers, as in this from 2H6:
myself have limed a bush for her,
And placed a quire of such enticing birds,
That she will light to listen to the lays, 2H6.I.3.86-8
In Midsummer Night’s Dream it is used to mean a company of friends or gossips:
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear MND.II.1.51-6.
Since the publication of Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity in 1930 (the extract is given at the bottom of this page) commentators tend to agree that the imagery recalls the many ruined abbeys and churches which were left to decay after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Churches were also vandalised or abandoned at various times in Elizabeth’s reign. In the early years of the reign there were few parish priests, and later, after the religious settlement and with the spreading influence of European reformist ideas, churches could be seen as symbols of popery and reaction and of the old religion. Enclosures of common land, with the consequent abandonment of villages, would also have caused some churches to fall to ruin. However it is not possible to say with certainty that the image of a ruined chancel was primarily what Shakespeare had in mind. He tends not to use the word ruin(s) or ruined other than in a figurative or general sense, as in:
Ruin hath led me thus to ruminate Sonnet 64
……….The king has cured me,
I humbly thank his grace; and from these shoulders,
These ruin’d pillars, out of pity, taken
A load would sink a navy, too much honour. H8.III.2.380-3.
But the above is the only instance where the word specifically refers to a building or a part of a building, and the lines were possibly written by Fletcher. Generally Shakespeare is more interested in wreckages of human personalities –
………….She once being loof’d,
The noble ruin of her magic, Antony,
Claps on his sea-wing, AC.III.10.18-20.
(loofed = with the head of the ship turned towards the wind).
Perhaps the most famous line featuring ruin is from Julius Caesar, when Antony speaks over Caesar’s corpse:
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times. JC.III.1.257-8.
I remain unconvinced that the rich stream of suggestions listed by Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity, (see below), which has led to much debate on this line, is entirely justified. It is a mattter of opinion whether branches of trees look very much like ruined abbeys. Readers must judge the matter for themselves. Other fleeting references in the line may be to quires of paper which contain songs and sonnets. Or to the composer William Byrd, who moved away from London in the 1590’s, probably owing to his Catholicism.5. In me thou see’st the twilight of such dayof such day = of such a day of late autumn or winter as I have been describing. Or day could be a synonym for ‘light’, allowing the meaning to run on to the next line. ‘In me you see such a time of life which is like twilight, when the daylight, after sunset, fades away in the West’.6. As after sunset fadeth in the west;See note above.7. Which by and by black night doth take away,Which = the twilight.
by and by = fairly rapidly; soon. Cf. Hamlet’s response to Polonius – I will come to my mother by and by. Ham.III.2.373.
take away = As well as the meaning of ‘remove’ there is also the implication of doing away with, killing, destroying by underhand means. Thus Macbeth, contemplating the murder of Duncan, fears that Duncan’s virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking off. Mac.I.7.19-20.
Night kills off the daylight, as a murderer kills his victim.8. Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.Sleep is often portrayed as a second self of Death, or Death’s brother. Compare:
Care Charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born:
Samuel Daniel, Sonnets to Delia, liv. (c 1600).
But in this sonnet Night takes the place of sleep as the grand slayer. Three images are possibly condensed here. That of sealing a coffin; sealing a letter, or a will, or a sentence of death, (i.e. folding it up and using sealing wax to seal it: envelopes were a later invention); covering over the eyes (seeling), as one did with tamed birds of prey. Similar imagery is used in Macbeth:
……….Come seeling Night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day. Mac.III.2.46-7.
But the thought in Mac. is somewhat different, being concerned with Macbeth’s determination to ally himself with evil forces in Nature.9. In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,such fire = such as is seen at twilight; such as is described in the next line.10. That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,his youth = the fire’s youth. The possessive ‘its’ was not yet in use in Elizabethan England, so we should not assume that the word ‘his’ adds more to the sense of personification than if it had been ‘its youth’.11. As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,As the death-bed – the ashes of his youth are as a death-bed; whereon it must expire = on which it, the fire, or the youth, must at last die.12. Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.Consumed with that = consumed, eaten away, at the same time as; eaten away by those things (which also nourish it). Similar to the line from Sonnet I :
Feeds thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel.
Life’s progress from beginning to end is summed up in one line.13. This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,Possibly a wish, rather than a statement of fact. ‘When you perceive this, it will strengthen your love’. this presumably refers to the poet’s waning life, described in the quatrains.14. To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
that = that person, spirit, dream of your imagination, me, the poet. Alternatively – your youth and freshness which is doomed to the same fate.
well – could include a pun on Will, the poet’s name.
leave = depart from, abandon; give up. A sidelong glance also at ‘to come into leaf’. SB points out that the couplet could have a bawdy interpretation.
| Empson’s comment on line 4.The fundamental situation, whether it deserves to be called ambiguous or not, is that a word or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once. To take a famous example, there is no pun, double syntax, or dubiety of feeling in|
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,
but the comparison holds for many reasons; because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter, because the cold and narcissistic charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions; these reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind. Clearly this is involved in all such richness and heightening of effect, and the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.W. Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Ch.I.