Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Bare ruins of church choirs where lately the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
In me you can see only the dim light that remains
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
After the sun sets in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Which is soon extinguished by black night,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
The image of death that envelops all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
I am like a glowing ember
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
Lying on the dying flame of my youth,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
As on the death bed where it must finally expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
Consumed by that which once fed it.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
This you sense, and it makes your love more determined
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Causing you to love that which you must give up before long.
that time of year (1): i.e., being late autumn or early winter.
When yellow leaves... (2): compare Macbeth (5.3.23) "my way of life/is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf."
Bare ruin'd choirs (4): a reference to the remains of a church or, more specifically, a chancel, stripped of its roof and exposed to the elements. The choirs formerly rang with the sounds of 'sweet birds'. Some argue that lines 3 and 4 should be read without pause -- the 'yellow leaves' shake against the 'cold/Bare ruin'd choirs.' If we assume the adjective 'cold' modifies 'Bare ruin'd choirs', then the image becomes more concrete -- those boughs are sweeping against the ruins of the church. Some editors, however, choose to insert 'like' into the opening of line 4, thus changing the passage to mean 'the boughs of the yellow leaves shake against the cold like the jagged arches of the choir stand exposed to the cold.' Noted 18th-century scholar George Steevens commented that this image "was probably suggested to Shakespeare by our desolated monasteries. The resemblance between the vaulting of a Gothic isle [sic] and an avenue of trees whose upper branches meet and form an arch overhead, is too striking not to be acknowledged. When the roof of the one is shattered, and the boughs of the other leafless, the comparison becomes more solemn and picturesque" (Quoted in Smith, p. 148).
black night (7): a metaphor for death itself. As 'black night' closes in around the remaining light of the day, so too does death close in around the poet.
Death's second self (8): i.e. 'black night' or 'sleep.' Macbeth refers to sleep as "The death of each day's life" (2.2.49).
In me thou see'st...was nourish'd by (9-12): The following is a brilliant paraphrase by early 20th-century scholar Kellner: "As the fire goes out when the wood which has been feeding it is consumed, so is life extinguished when the strength of youth is past." (Quoted in Rollins, p. 191)
that (12): i.e., the poet's desires.
This (14): i.e., the demise of the poet's youth and passion.
To love that well (12): The meaning of this phrase and of the concluding couplet has caused much debate. Is the poet saying that the young man now understands that he will lose his own youth and passion, after listening to the lamentations in the three preceding quatrains? Or is the poet saying that the young man now is aware of the poet's imminent demise, and this knowledge makes the young man's love for the poet stronger because he might soon lose him? What must the young man give up before long -- his youth or his friend? For more on this dilemma please see the commentary below.
Sonnets 71-74 are typically analyzed as a group, linked by the poet's thoughts of his own mortality. However, Sonnet 73 contains many of the themes common throughout the entire body of sonnets, including the ravages of time on one's physical well-being and the mental anguish associated with moving further from youth and closer to death. Time's destruction of great monuments juxtaposed with the effects of age on human beings is a convention seen before, most notably in Sonnet 55.
The poet is preparing his young friend, not for the approaching literal death of his body, but the metaphorical death of his youth and passion. The poet's deep insecurities swell irrepressibly as he concludes that the young man is now focused only on the signs of his aging -- as the poet surely is himself. This is illustrated by the linear development of the three quatrains. The first two quatrains establish what the poet perceives the young man now sees as he looks at the poet: those yellow leaves and bare boughs, and the faint afterglow of the fading sun. The third quatrain reveals that the poet is speaking not of his impending physical death, but the death of his youth and subsequently his youthful desires -- those very things which sustained his relationship with the young man.
Throughout the 126 sonnets addressed to the young man the poet tries repeatedly to impart his wisdom of Time's wrath, and more specifically, the sad truth that time will have the same effects on the young man as it has upon the poet. And as we see in the concluding couplet of Sonnet 73, the poet has this time succeeded. The young man now understands the importance of his own youth, which he will be forced to 'leave ere long' (14).
It must be reiterated that some critics assume the young man 'perceives' not the future loss of his own youth, but the approaching loss of the poet, his dear friend. This would then mean that the poet is speaking of his death in the literal sense. Feuillerat argues that
Even if we make allowance for the exaggeration which is every poet's right, Shakespeare was not young when he wrote this sonnet. It is overcast by the shadow of death and belongs to a date perhaps not far from 1609. (The Composition of Shakespeare's Plays, p. 72)
This interpretation is less popular because it is now generally accepted that all 154 sonnets were composed before 1600, so Shakespeare would have been no older than thirty-six. However, the sonnets were not initially printed in the order we now accept them, and an error in sequence is very possible.
Sonnet 73 is one of Shakespeare's most famous works, but it has prompted both tremendous praise and sharp criticism. Included here are excerpts from commentaries by two noted Shakespearean scholars, John Barryman and John Crowe Ransom:
The fundamental emotion [in Sonnet 73] is self-pity. Not an attractive emotion. What renders it pathetic, in the good instead of the bad sense, is the sinister diminution of the time concept, quatrain by quatrain. We have first a year, and the final season of it; then only a day, and the stretch of it; then just a fire, built for part of the day, and the final minutes of it; then -- entirely deprived of life, in prospect, and even now a merely objective "that," like a third-person corpse! -- the poet. The imagery begins and continues as visual -- yellow, sunset, glowing -- and one by one these are destroyed; but also in the first quatrain one heard sound, which disappears there; and from the couplet imagery of every kind is excluded, as if the sense were indeed dead, and only abstract, posthumous statement is possible. A year seems short enough; yet ironically the day, and then the fire, makes it in retrospect seem long, and the final immediate triumph of the poem's imagination is that in the last line about the year, line 4, an immense vista is indeed invoked -- that the desolate monasteries strewn over England, sacked in Henry's reign, where 'late' -- not so long ago! a terrible foreglance into the tiny coming times of the poem -- the choirs of monks lifted their little and brief voices, in ignorance of what was coming -- as the poet would be doing now, except that this poem knows. Instinct is here, after all, a kind of thought. This is one of the best poems in English.
(John Berryman, The Sonnets)
The structure is good, the three quatrains offering distinct yet equivalent figures for the time of life of the unsuccessful and to-be-pitied lover. But the first quatrain is the boldest, and the effect of the whole is slightly anti-climactic. Within this quatrain I think I detect a thing which often characterizes Shakespeare's work within the metaphysical style: he is unwilling to renounce the benefit of his earlier style, which consisted in the breadth of the associations; that is, he will not quite risk the power of a single figure but compounds the figures. I refer to the two images about the boughs. It is one thing to have the boughs shaking against the cold, and in that capacity they carry very well the fact of the old rejected lover; it is another thing to represent them as ruined choirs where the birds no longer sing. The latter is a just representation of the lover too, and indeed a subtler and richer one, but the two images cannot, in logical rigor, co-exist. Therefore I deprecate shake against the cold. And I believe everybody will deprecate sweet. This term is not an objective image at all, but a term to be located at the subjective pole of the experience; it expects to satisfy a feeling by naming it (this is, by just having it) and is a pure sentimentalism.
(John Crowe Ransom, Shakespeare at Sonnets).
How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 73. Ed. Amanda Mabillard. Shakespeare Online. 8 Dec. 2012. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/73detail.html >.
Berryman, John. Berryman's Shakespeare. Ed. John Haffenden. New York: Farrar, Straus And Giroux, 1999.
Feuillerat, Albert. The Composition of Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953.
Forrest, H. T. S. The Five Authors of Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: Chapman & Dodd, Ltd., 1923.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. H. Rollins. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1944.
Smith, Hallett. The Tension of the Lyre. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1981.
According to Wordsworth ... The famous poet William Wordsworth wrote that "the appropriate business of Poetry, (which, nevertheless, if genuine, is as permanent as pure science), her privilege and duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions." According to Wordsworth, Sonnet 73, for its "merits of thought and language" is one of Shakespeare's greatest poems.