A suggestion of Helen Vendler’s regarding Sonnet 116 has made me rethink what I said earlier about 73. In 116, Vendler argues, Shakespeare’s speaker is struggling to refute a notion of love that all too many beautiful people have today – why can’t love alter when it alteration finds? Why doesn’t beauty alone allow for caprice in matters of the heart?
Vendler says that the speaker in 116 struggles to find metaphors to describe love’s constancy, and runs into a deep problem: love depends on a choice where one bears it out even to the edge of doom. Only then does time matter less – when beauty matters not – but time still has a powerful grip on what love is.
The issue of the internal audience’s dismissive perspective is accidentally made stronger by the wiser speaker realizing that love does not guide man entirely from without. “Alteration,” “removal” – these things injure beauty, and since beauty is the audience’s only estimation of his own worth, the rhetoric that there might be something time-less is failing even as it rings truer and truer. The speaker has written, men have loved, but whether that convinces who it needs to convince is a different question altogether.
73, I think, has a parallel rhetorical structure. We are given three images by which the speaker attempts to justify why he is worth loving. The first image, in the first stanza, is that of a tree. Trees give shade from those affected adversely by light, and allow the more musical to dwell within their branches. The tree is a symbol for man’s intellectual life benefiting others, but because it will cease to benefit others necessarily beyond the tree’s existence, it is an image which the speaker rejects.
The second stanza of 73 has the speaker imagining himself as twilight, fading away slowly into night. But the language of the second stanza changes when the speaker realizes that Death, as night, has agency in the image – it is not so much that the intellectual light is fading away, as much as it is consumed by darkness. Any intellectual comfort the speaker has for himself is negated as Death approaches, for one’s mind can literally go to pieces. Also, as those of us who neglect to post on the Internet at times know, not being around as much means one can be more easily ignored.
The final stanza of 73 throws away the images related to knowledge and its effects public and personal to move to an image the idiot of an audience might “understand:” a fire burning so intensely that it chokes itself to death. It is the act of the will that is romanticized here, and appreciation for that act is passed off as a credible definition of love in the couplet, when it clearly isn’t. All of us who are intellectual have dealt with those who are openly jealous of our minds and hateful. I dealt with someone once that would at critical moments put me down as “arrogant” for asserting things I had worked long on, and tried my best to be balanced about. That was “overthinking,” and I was actually happy to hear charges against me at those moments, because silence would have meant I was absent from her life totally. Silence was the worst, knowing I was being responded to and dismissed for the sake of blithe was at least a bit more comforting.
I didn’t have then the rhetoric Shakespeare uses, where he can appeal to such people by literally saying “Hey, I work hard too.” I don’t know that I want such rhetoric – the “failed” attempts of the first two stanzas actually do justify the speaker. This poem has lasted after all, and no one knows or really cares who the actual audience for the work was. And Shakespeare’s mind lives on through his speaker, someone who has exerted his will for the sake of thought, and thus is the twilight of many days fading and the tree from which some may sing.