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Life's Fall: Shakespear's Last Years in Sonnet 73
The 1st quatrain examines the sonnet’s most general metaphoric description of the speaker’s aging body, Autumn. Shakespeare fails to specify even what season he is referring to in the opening line it is recognized only as “That time of the year thou mayst in me behold” (1). That “me” comes soon after “thou” and close to the end of the line also signifies the lack of detail the speaker places on himself in the 1st quatrain. In the second and third quatrains this is inverted, as “In me thou seest” becomes a a lot more insistent and refined initiation (five, 9). Shakespeare continues the conceit of subject refinement as he 1st describes Autumn’s “yellow leaves” as merely current, then concedes there might be “none,” then finally settles on “few” (2). This present of definition develops two themes, that Shakespeare believes he nonetheless has a couple of leaves left on his tree of life, and that the poetic eye of his lover can amplify the power of even a bare tree. Still, the monosyllabic, caesura-laden intonations of the line can't hide the speaker’s automaton-like march to death.
Shakespeare finishes his description of the leaves, which “hang/ Upon these boughs which shake against the cold” (two-three). “Hang” is each a technical and a metaphoric enjambment that magnifies the speaker’s dependency and physical weakness. However even in this comparison of feebleness yet another transition advances the line from the stale and general to the energetic (albeit a flailing energy) and distinct: we move from motionless, commonplace leaves to “those boughs,” distinct ones, which “shake against the cold” and do their greatest to fight off death. “Bare ruined choirs” is an allusion to the monasteries ransacked by Henry VIII, and even in this line of mortality there is an accumulation of passion from the initial word of “Bare” to the final word “sang,” the speaker’s juxtaposition of man-produced desolation with the absence of organic vitality paradoxically grows in passion as he bemoans the dying around him. This propels him into the subsequent quatrain in which, as noted just before, he instantly announces himself as the subject, as a result further intensifying his and his lover’s scrutiny of his fading.
Indeed, fading is the ostensible metaphor employed in the second quatrain. Shakespeare transfers from the most broad, season, to a far more exclusive day, just as he moved from “yellow leaves” to “those boughs.” And, again, he alters his definition of the time of day from an approximate “twilight of such day” to the more descriptive and precise line, “As after sunset fadeth in the west” (5-six). The intensification of poetic power coupled with his physical dulling now requires on a self-loathing tone whereas before his lover “mayst behold,” one more hazy, inexact line, now he absolutely “seest” (five). The powerlessness the speaker feels in his struggle grows right here. In the 1st quatrain his boughs shook against the cold choirs now he enables his light to fade: “Which by and by black evening doth take away,/ Death’s second self that seals up all in rest” (7-8). The “by and by” implies the passage of time and his passive function in the diminishing of light, although the powerful alliteration of “b’s” sound spiteful, as if he watches night rob him of his life from the sidelines. “Death’s second self,” or sleep, also uses alliteration to fantastic impact, the slippery “s’s” echoing his poisonous descent into death. However his increased inactivity in the matter continues the paradoxical theme of sinking imagery with stirring lyrical power?”Death’s second self that seals up all in rest” surely has more fire beneath its words than do the original yellow leaves. Shakespeare tends to make a lot more explicit this connection in the subsequent quatrain as he carves a final metaphor which explains the duality, that of a soul suffocating below the weight of his failing body.
Shakespeare reprises the “In me thou seest” opener, and its repetitiveness now seems much more urgent and, pushing the theme, much more specified (9). Now his lover’s eye is ever a lot more finely-tuned, capable to see the “glowing of such fire” after lyrics of dark vagueness from the initial two quatrains (9). The fire, Shakespeare’s metaphor for his soul that flickers with its dying embers, nonetheless includes some animation in the midst of “his youth’s” expired “ashes” (10). This ties in the preceding oppositions of animation suppressed by lethargy?his soul is “Consumed with that which it was nourished by,” or, in other words, suffocates below its body’s dead weight (12). This quatrain of expiration is 1 of the few that deviates from rigid iambic meter “As [weak] the [weak] death- [sturdy] bed [powerful]” follows a pyrrhic with a spondee to emphasize the inevitable fatality, for we are told that the fire “must expire” (ten). The rough verbal shifts of “with that which it was” stress the mechanical manner in which his as soon as vibrant soul now perishes. The function of declaring the speaker’s embattled soul’s clash with his degenerating body is completed in standard Shakespearean sonnet style, he saves the couplet for a conclusion that reflects upon both himself and his audience.
Shakespeare alterations from “thou seest” to “This thou perceiv’st,” and the effect carries on the progression of his lover’s eye sharpening from perhaps beholding to seeing and observing and now to perception and understanding (13). Shakespeare’s tone in the couplet is grateful?”which tends to make thy really like a lot more strong” that his lover can disregard the corpse the speaker’s body has disintegrated into is a source of awe for him (13). The contradiction in their respective views of his body, then, matches the earlier contradictions of living soul and dying physique. This strength that his lover affords the speaker brings new which means to the line “Consumed with that which it was nourished by.” Maybe Shakespeare fed off his lover’s really like to the point when his personal discontentment with his aging outweighed the youthful assistance he received. This, then, adds a twist to the couplet, and the final line, “To enjoy that well, which thou have to leave ere long” resonates only partly of gratitude, and mainly of self-deprecation and bewilderment at his lover’s fidelity. Nevertheless, this seems significantly less probably than the conclusion the speaker has drawn, that he is fortunate to have a person for whom a lover’s bodily flaws only impel him to fan the flames of his lover’s slightly lambent soul. As with several of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the couplet (save a single word) is composed of monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words which drive his point home with finality.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, taken in a sequence, touch on many themes, namely those of Time, Enjoy, and Poetry. The poetry is not an explicit subject in “Sonnet 73,” Shakespeare’s soul, it could very easily be argued, is poetry, and he wrote the sonnets just before his retirement to Stratford (and seven years ahead of his death). He was forty-5 years old when he penned them, considerably far more ancient in those days then now, and he could have felt his poetic soul had been spent. Of course, most poets would gladly trade their living poetic souls for a fraction of Shakespeare’s dead 1, but the high standards he held himself to appear outlandish. Only his lover can fill in the beauty he feels he has lost on his own that it is his lover who “must leave ere long” and not Shakespeare illustrates the power his youthful companion held over him. No wonder, then, that in his declining years, the fantastic poet held on dearly to one particular whose eternal summer would never fade.
Abrams et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition, vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Firm, Inc., 1993.
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