Sonnet 73 - William 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 ruin'd 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 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 perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


1.      Boughs - a branch of a tree, especially one of the larger or main branches
2.      Doth - 3rd person singular present
3.      that time of year (1): i.e., being late autumn or early winter.
4.      When yellow leaves... (2): compare Macbeth (5.3.23) "my way of life/is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf."
5.      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" (Smith 148).
6.      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.
7.      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).
8.      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." (See Sonnets, ed. Rollins, p.191)
9.      that (12): i.e., the poet's desires.
10.  This (14): i.e., the demise of the poet's youth and passion.
11.  To love that well (12): The meaning of this phrase and of the concluding couplet has aroused 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.


FIRST QUATRAIN:  Shakespeare laments that when his friend looks at him, he sees "That time of year . . ./ When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold" (1-3). This is a straightforward complaint that, like autumn, the poet is moving gradually into old age, with the winter of death right around the corner. But Shakespeare's description of the tree limbs in their bare autumn dress is key to the whole poem. He calls them "Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." The barren tree branches are the "choir," or the place where the choir sang. But the "sweet birds" are no longer there. Given that the entire sequence of poems is a sequence of songs, Shakespeare's lament can be seen as a lament that the songs themselves, the poems, will cease. His poems were very sweet birds. At his death, no longer will there be any new songs to praise his friend.

SECOND QUATRAIN: Shakespeare doesn't use death to meditate on the melancholy aspect of sleep, but uses sleep to speculate on the "restful" aspect of death. The image which opens the quatrain, the sunset, is standard; his life is at the point of fading into darkness. But the sleep which night brings is not presented too fearfully here, because night brings "Death's second self that seals up all in rest" (8). If Shakespeare is anticipating such a "rest," then his passing will be melancholy ("ruined choirs," "the twilight of [the] day") but not altogether bad. But given the clear connection between the "sweet birds" and the poems themselves, it seems possible that the author is actually looking toward the cessation of all his singing with some sense of relief, as well as a melancholy sense of loss. He mourns the loss of the power to sing; but the rest is nevertheless welcomed.

LAST QUATRAIN:  In this quatrain Shakespeare is now a fire burned down to the glowing embers. Fire has all sorts of associations: the heat of passion (which fits this poem), the consuming quality of love (which also fits), the dangerous attraction of all human desires (they attract, but they burn). This latter fits this poem too. Shakespeare takes this idea and builds an image which comments on the loss of creative fire as part of the approach of death. Shakespeare warns his lover in the end that loving too much is dangerous, because the loss of the loved one always sears the heart with pain.


The narrator focuses the narrator’s own anxiety over growing old. Each quatrain compares the narrator’s “time of the year” with examples of the passing of time in nature. The metaphors shorten is duration from months to hours to what may be minutes, the acceleration itself is a metaphor for the increasing rapid rate at which old age begins to take its toll on the human body.

His lover will love him more, the older he gets, because their physical ageing will remind him that he will die soon. Alternatively, he could be saying that if his lover can appreciate and love him in his decrepit state then his love must be enduring and strong.


Sonnet 73 takes up one of the most pressing issues of the first 126 sonnets, the speaker’s anxieties regarding what he perceives to be his advanced age, and develops the theme through a sequence of metaphors each implying something different. The first quatrain, which employs the metaphor of the winter day, emphasizes the harshness and emptiness of old age, with its boughs shaking against the cold and its “bare ruined choirs” bereft of birdsong. In the second quatrain, the metaphor shifts to that of twilight, and emphasizes not the chill of old age, but rather the gradual fading of the light of youth, as “black night” takes away the light “by and by”. But in each of these quatrains, with each of these metaphors, the speaker fails to confront the full scope of his problem: both the metaphor of winter and the metaphor of twilight imply cycles, and impose cyclical motions upon the objects of their metaphors, whereas old age is final. Winter follows spring, but spring will follow winter just as surely; and after the twilight fades, dawn will come again. In human life, however, the fading of warmth and light is not cyclical; youth will not come again for the speaker. In the third quatrain, he must resign himself to this fact. The image of the fire consumed by the ashes of its youth is significant both for its brilliant disposition of the past—the ashes of which eventually snuff out the fire, “consumed by that which it was nourished by”—and for the fact that when the fire is extinguished, it can never be lit again.

 It is often argued that 73 and sonnets like it are simply exercises in metaphor—that they propose a number of different metaphors for the same thing, and the metaphors essentially mean the same thing. But to make this argument is to miss the psychological narrative contained within the choice of metaphors themselves. Sonnet 73 is not simply a procession of interchangeable metaphors; it is the story of the speaker slowly coming to grips with the real finality of his age and his impermanence in time.


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.
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, 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 heardsound, 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).


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