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"That Time of Year," Indeed: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 as an Introduction to New Criticism

Sonnet 73
Shakespeare

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 seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth steal away,
Death’s second self, which seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest 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.

A reading of Sonnet 73
Ashok Karra

1. First Impressions: You probably read this poem at first (if you don’t have formal training reading poetry) and went “Huh. It’s about getting older, death, and love.” That first impression is not to be discarded: it is very accurate and very helpful.

What I am going to show you now is a method for working with those impressions. The method should make you fearless: you should be able to approach any work of literature, any poem, maybe even art and film and music and be confident that while you will not figure everything out, you will have important and thoughtful things to say about a work.

2. Critical Method: Formal & Thematic Approaches. The fancy terminology is my own. The concepts behind both approaches are simple, and you will need to use both approaches to understand poetry generally.

Formal: Every work has an internal speaker and an internal audience. (A dialogue between two participants shows this principle exactly.) The author of a work ought to be considered an external speaker, as he is speaking to us indirectly through his art. Biographical information about the external speaker, such as gossip about an author’s life, is usually irrelevant to a poem, or causes greater confusion about the poem itself. Also, if I were to say “I, Ashok, a dude born in 1980 and a horrible student, am the audience for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73,” that “I” would be an external audience. The trick is to find whom the speaker is talking to through what the speaker is talking about.

What we want is for the author’s art to speak to what we feel is important, not for the author himself to speak directly to us.

– I should say that this is only one way of looking at a poem. There are historical approaches, and reader-response theory, and a million other ways to work through literature. Nonetheless, I think you will find this way the most satisfying. –

Thematic: When one gets stronger at reading works, or realizes that certain themes are always at play in certain authors or artists, one can track what elements mean what through continuity of theme, and can see how an artist/author is responding to certain ideas, or other artists.

– Let us see these approaches in action, shall we? –

3. Shakespeare, Sonnet 73: Begin by noting that a sonnet has a formal structure which helps interpretation greatly: there are three stanzas of 4 lines, each stanza with a particular rhyme scheme, and a couplet at the end.

Now this poem is a bit tricky, because the major idea is in the couplet. Nonetheless, I want to walk through this poem stanza by stanza.

Stanza 1:

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.

“Thou” (internal audience) and “me” (internal speaker) are the puzzles: what is the relation between these two? What importance is it to us?

“Thou” sees a time of year in “me?” That must be a metaphor for one’s seeing a friend age. The age is a peculiar age – it is a time in life near death; after all, one can say Spring is when one is born, and Winter is when one dies. The speaker is at a strange moment in life, for he is at late Autumn. He does not know when he will die – hence the confused order of “none, or few.” It should be “few, or none,” but the speaker is clearly in some turmoil about death. Hemight not want to die, after all.

Now the rest of the image is a tree image. Cf. Rousseau in Emile – I think the tree is a symbol of a man of immense learning. A tree places its roots in the ground and grows outward. Firmly rooted in the Earth, it literally branches everywhere, giving shelter and protection (knowledge is useful, and it is useful when it is directly related to Earthly things, no?) while staying at rest (a man of learning must study, like roots sucking up water, and his knowledge means he is very difficult to sway).

But this tree has lost its leaves, and lost the music it once enjoyed and allowed the world to hear, and it does not look like it will be a legacy of any sort, or will live on in some way. A speaker in turmoil about death needs something more substantial than a tree image to consider what made his life worthwhile, or to find some other hope that will help him confront his own death.

Stanza 2:

In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth steal away,
Death’s second self, which seals up all in rest.

Here the image is that of light – again, an image of learning or knowledge. But the sunlight is attacked by “black night.” It is “night” that has agency, it is “night” which is attacking the light as day passes on, not so much light on its own receding.

Again, note that this image is unsatisfactory to the speaker. While he feels the internal audience understands his immense learning and quest for knowledge, both the images introduced with “in me” so far have failed to aid the speaker himself make sense of his own predicament.

You might want to ask yourself what the difference between the light and tree images is on a more personal level. I think that “night” is the struggle one has with oneself when one is thinking about death, actually: As one gets older, one’s immense knowledge is literally clouded by the awareness that it could all be for naught. Such a tension erases one’s own knowledge, as it destroys the lack of worry needed for true contemplation.

But that is my own thought.

Stanza 3:

In me thou seest 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 is the image that is the most satisfactory to the speaker: Why? Well, what’s happening is that a large fire, a fire that consumed enormous energy, it putting itself out – putting itself out through using up its fuel rapidly and throwing up ashes into the air that blanket it eventually.

Why is this good? It is a notion of death where death is not something that happens to us, but comes about by us using life as best we can. This is a very humanist notion of death, although I think the life of St. Thomas Aquinas can be said to fit into this pattern, sort of (he worked himself to death). The larger point is that death is here, in a sense, in one’s control.

Couplet:

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

Here, the internal audience is credited with realizing that love and death are intimately connected, and that is the true knowledge. If we cannot die, we cannot love. And so love increases with a certain awareness of death and how people are struggling with death and how to make sense of life.

7 Comments

  1. this is a great way of analyzing poems. and i will try using this method to analyze poems.

  2. Felix de Villiers

    February 28, 2009 at 5:00 am

    A very thoughtful and helpful way of thinking through a poem. Yet,you dig out the conceptual implications of the poem, whereas poetry seeks to transform conceptuality with all the poetic means at its disposal, and I lke to see these reflected in an interpretation.

    I have made a tentative attempt at such interpretation in the topic Some Notes on Poetry in my group Poetry and Prose n my Facebook, which should be available to you

    I don’t feel up to such an attenpt just now with this Sonnet, but here are some throwaway thoughts:

    The sonnets belong in a cycle and it’s difficult to separate them, as you show when you make a comparison with “the marriage of true minds” in your second consideration. Many interpreters make a beeline for this last Sonnet, because it makes them feel morally comfortable. But it’s high principles are undermined by the sequence as a whole.

    In the last couplet we know that the speaker is deluded in thinking his approaching death “will make thy love more strong,” since we know that his love throughout the Sonnets will remain unrequited.

    Peter Ackroyd, in his Everyman’s History of English literature has an interesting interpretation of the Sonnets. He sees them as indicative of Shakespeare’s relationship to his dramatis personae. He is continually effacing, abasing himself because he gives life to his chracters at his own expense. To make them live he must renounce, even die. They will behave as they please in his despite.

    I have quite often come across people who feel that the closing couplets, don’t live up to the rest of the Sonnets. Ackroyd agrees in seeing them as proverbial additions, but finds them moving for this very reason, because symbolic of the speaker’s self-effacement. I don’t think this is always true, but Sonnet 73 is a powerful poem if you read it up to the end of the third quatrain. Then a piece of proverbial wisdom is added.

  3. Thanks for introducing me to a new way of analyzing poems.

  4. Stumbled for the instructive tutorial!

    I am considering the commentary of Felix de Villiers: howw much responsibility do we have, as novice critiquers, to understand the context in which a piece of work exists? Given that you suggest we dismiss gossip and etc. regarding the author, should we not also dismiss contexts and critique the piece on its own merit?

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  5. Thank you. I have been reading and re-reading this poem. I like the way you break it down.

  6. Dear Ashok, Happy New Year to You. it is a nice analysis. I am a lecturer, teaching poetry and need such analysis for myself and my students. Please let me know if have some more analyses on Shakespeare and other poets. I will be happy to have your mail ID because I may send some of my poems for your observations.
    My ID is Kadousian@yahoo.com
    Best regards
    Kadoos

  7. This not only was very helpful (we went over this poem in class yesterday) but also was a delightful read. Your commentary was at times rather funny and made me smile. :)

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