Updated date:

Shakespeare Sonnet 73: "That time of year thou mayst in me behold"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 73: "That time of year thou mayst in me behold"

This much anthologized sonnet 73 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence is often interpreted only as a speaker describing the aging process of his body. But this complex sonnet actually works on two levels: one describes the body's aging while the other once again bemoans the writer's curse known as "the writer's block." This sonnet does, in fact, appear in the series of sonnets dedicated to the speaker's muse, his talent, his poems—often mistakenly labeled "The Fair Youth" sequence.

It is not likely that this deeply committed poet would simply abandon that theme to focus solely on the mundane subject of an aging physical body. This poet is too clever and too strongly dedicated to writing unique poems to fall so low as to create a drama simply about a physical function. Thus, the poet has his speaker once again create a unique view of how it feels to experience the worse curse of any writer.

Sonnet 73: "That time of year thou mayst in me behold"

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 see’st 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 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.

Reading of Sonnet 73

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 73 employs three different metaphors, a tree, a day, and a fire, to describe the effect of writer's block on the speaker's ability to create his sonnets.

First Quatrain: Addressing the Sonnet

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 the first quatrain of Shakespeare Sonnet 73, the speaker addresses his belovèd sonnet, remarking that it may see that the strength of his talent is shaking again through another period of writer's block. The speaker compares his blocked talent to a tree in autumn losing its leaves: "yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang." The tree in summer stood tall as its leaves began to unfurl and deepen into summer leaves of sturdy green. Now as writer's block falls onto the poets shoulders, his leaves have turned yellow with lack of ink.

Personifying his compositions, the speaker's poems' literary hair has thinned against the on-set of that dreaded curse for writers, and the few strands they possess left are turning gray through disuse. The gray hair that once was brown/black is likened to yellow leaves that once were green. And like the tree’s branches trembling in the cold breezes of winter coming on, the speaker's penchant for verse seems to shiver in the cold weather brought on by his lack of poetic inspiration. The speaker's poetry is becoming "[b]are ruin’d choirs," though it used to be filled with beautiful expression akin to the songs of "sweet birds."

As the dreaded writer's block overtakes the speaker's ability to create his little dramas, he must use all of his resources to stave off that invader which makes him perceive himself and his creations as that tree moving into autumn—its best, productive days in the past spring and summer seasons.

Second Quatrain: Blocking is Like a Tree and a Day

In me thou see’st 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.

After comparing this recent, onset of writer's block to a tree in late autumn, the speaker then compares it to a day. The blocking has caused him to feel that he is in the "twilight of [that] day," the time when the sun "fadeth in the west."

When the speaker's full inspiration and full flowing writing is in progress, he feels that the time of day is noon, when the sun is highest and the ability to see is keenest. The blocked ability to continue his creations causes him to feel that he is experiencing that part of the day that is becoming dark.

The speaker expresses metaphorically the approaching of night time for the day as the time when soon everything sleeps. The days gives way to "black night." And black night bring on "Death’s second self," or sleep. While the speaker does not wish to sleep, he wishes to be able to write his poems, he knows that it is likely that he will have to sleep in order to gain some strength to fight the blocking that is occurring.

Third Quatrain: Blocking Like a Fire

In me thou see’st 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.

In the third quatrain, the speaker again introduces a new metaphor: this time he compares his seemingly ebbing ability to compose to a fire that, "on the ashes of his youth doth lie." The times when he was freely and productively composing represents youth that once burned brightly.

However, during these times of blocking, it seem that the speaker's flame may be dwindling, and the very things that feeds his youthful, vibrant flame are being consumed by the low-burning fire of writer's block.

The Couplet: Faith in the Muse

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

Nevertheless, the speaker knows that his belovèd muse that accompanies his talent is still affording him love and that love is becoming even stronger as he continues to battle the fatigue brought on by that dreaded writer's curse. The speaker credits his fine talent, his inspiring muse, and his strong ability to compose with the capability of continuing.

By personifying those creative entities, the speaker can thus perceive that his love is well protected and growing even stronger—despite the fact that it may in future seem to abandon him again.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford: The Real "Shakespeare"

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles