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Sonnet 73 — a Poetry Friday post

Among other things (Jane-related books and articles, friends' manuscripts for critiques, and the occasional new book), I've been reading Bill Bryson's book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage. And the other day I watched the movie Twelfth Night, featuring Gandhi Ben Kingsley as Feste, Imogen Stubbs as Viola and Toby Stephens as Duke Orsino. (S came in part-way through and said "Oh, is this based on She's the Man?" Um, yeah. Or maybe the other way around?) Ever since then, I've been singing "When that I was and a little tiny boy" (or, The Rain, it Raineth Every Day) off and on. But I digress.

And yet it's not a true digression, for all of the bits I just related contribute to explain why I've selected one of Shakespeare's sonnets for today. Master poet, master playwright, creator of words, inventor of myriad characters of delight, Shakespeare really knew his way around a sentence. The particular form of sonnet he used followed this rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. As in most sonnets, the first eight lines set up the poem. Line nine of any sonnet typically contains the volta, or the "turn", where the sonnet moves to a different vantage point (could move inward or outward, or on to a related topic, or flip the poem on its head). And Shakespeare generally employs a turn in his ninth lines as well, and then does one better, because that rhymed couplet left by itself at the end is usually an extra serving of cream that gives the poem still further resonance. In this poem, however, I find there is no real turn until the closing couplet, although I can also see a bit of a shift once you hit lines 11 and 12. See where you think the poem "turns" as you read Sonnet LXXIII.

Sonnet 73
by 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 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 death-bed 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.

Broken down in the crassest of ways, the speaker here spends four lines comparing himself to a tree in winter, another four comparing himself to twilight (with night encroaching), and yet another four in comparing himself to a dying fire, with an overt reference to a death-bed in line 11. The final couplet is, to me, the real volta here, where Shakespeare ceases to speak of "me" and shifts to "thou", and the topic shifts from metaphors for death and aging to a direct address about love and parting. Despite a fairly bleak opening, I find hope in this poem because of its last lines, which speak of love strengthening and which can, I believe, be read in a carpe diem* kind of way.

Many folks read the poem literally as one intended to be "spoken" by an older person to someone much younger, and I have to say I think that's an entirely fair reading. The poem can also be read as being about the speaker's creative life: his work was once compared to the singing of sweet birds, but now is diminished; his star is fading; his creative powers are nearly used up. I have to say that while that second interpretation is one that's very popular with the "write a bullshit essay for school" crowd, I don't believe for moment that Shakespeare intended for the poem to be about his art, even though one can freely analyze it that way and likely get an A on the essay in doing so.

No, my take is that Shakespeare was most likely feeling neglected or a bit unappreciated by a lover and was trying to gain their sympathy (or heap coals upon them) by invoking thoughts of his death. It's all very melodramatic and over the top, and similar to what a lot of teenagers might do (even though Shakespeare was probably in his twenties or thirties when this was written), yet it rings true in a way that making these about Shakespeare's death or dying art do not. First, there's his age to consider - he was not an old man when he wrote this sonnet. Second, there's his art to take into account: he was still growing and writing and succeeding. In either case, personal experience/autobiography seem out of the question. Unless, of course, you believe, as I do, that Will was trying to manipulate someone by preying on their emotions.

Sonnet 73 is part of a quartet of sonnets that deal with aspects of death, and are usually read together. The quarter is composed of sonnets 71-74, and most folks read them as an older man (most believe Shakespeare himself) considering his own mortality, and writing poems for a young male friend he leaves behind him. Why male? Beats me. There's nothing in the poems overtly indicative that such is the case, although references to the other person facing public scrutiny might be taken that way (and many scholars believe that it was Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare's patron, to whom these poems were addressed). It seems to me far more likely that these lines were written by Shakespeare in order to manipulate a woman he knew, or else written for Southampton so that he could share them with a mistress in order to try to make her feel sorry for him. Or perhaps to try to get Elizabeth I to pardon him for schtupping one of her ladies-in-waiting without her permission or for backing Essex's rebellion against the Queen.

Sonnet 71 takes a pious martyr-like tone and urges the surviving loved one not to mourn overly much, because it's not the dying person's desire to see him/her unhappy, nor does the speaker want the survivor to be "mocked" for their sentimental mourning: "I'm just thinking of you, dear; I would never want you to be unhappy. When I'm dead." Sonnet 72 reads like a dejected, almost petulant, lover, speaking of how unworthy he is of love and undeserving of praise, and exhorting the survivor (after his death), not to heap praise on the speaker because it would be a lie: "I'm a mutt, a mongrel, unworthy even of being kicked". Sonnet 73 you've just read, and Sonnet 74 talks about how the dead speaker's body may decay, but his spirit will live on with the loved one he addresses, as memorialized in the lines of his poem: "Don't be sad. Even when I'm dead and my body is being devoured by worms, probably because I've been knifed, and I'm unworthy of being remembered by you, you'll have this sonnet about me being dead to remember me by." (Sorry for the overly long description of Sonnet 74, but really, the lines about worms and being knifed and how base the writer is were too good not to mention.)

* seize the day

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( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 8th, 2008 03:20 pm (UTC)
Thou dost makest this quite clear...nerdy or otherwise!
Feb. 8th, 2008 03:25 pm (UTC)
What say'st thou? Dying guy, dying talent, or manipulation?
Feb. 8th, 2008 03:43 pm (UTC)
Though I leanest towards "dying guy", I findest thou interpretation most poetic and wonder if somebody of Willie's caliber would be so literal.

So, I thikest it's quite clear we need to be open towards both....

But I agree, I don't buy dying talent bit.
Feb. 8th, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC)
I agree that the "turn" doesn't come until the closing couplet. You cite some very interesting interpretations. I lean towards older man speaking to a younger male admirer. I see the connection with dying art, too. You say S wasn't an old man when he wrote this. In those days, 30 could be considered old, since they rarely lived beyond 40.

If my decrepit, failing memory serves me right, weren't a good number of his sonnets about immortality? This prevalent theme could partly explain how the poet would (and wanted to)live on in the younger friend.

Manipulation of a lover is also possible, but it seems a weird way of extracting sympathy. "You only think you love me because I'll be checking out soon."
Feb. 8th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)
I would read it (if it were manipulation) as "You'd better love me all the more while I'm still here since I'm fading." But the most common reading is the one you've chosen.
Feb. 8th, 2008 04:11 pm (UTC)
But who's doing the leaving? in the last line, he says, "Which thou must leave ere long."

I always read it as an aged fellow talking to his lady, who's been edging toward the door because she wants something a bit younger.

I've had this poem memorized since high school. Makes me wish I'd memorized more of the sonnets.

I love yr poetry talks, btw. Keep it up!
Feb. 8th, 2008 04:19 pm (UTC)
Oh! I like that take as well - the idea of someone making their way to younger, greener pastures is pretty awesome.

I shall stick with my manipulation theory - perhaps the lover (male or female - could go either way) - is under other obligation (a spouse? some other duty?) and must leave the speaker (as when Elizabeth imprisoned Southampton and the lady in waiting he married on the sly), but the speaker still wants to be assured of the lover's love. And/or, perhaps it's when Southampton is in prison and he's addressing Elizabeth using courtier-like words: she would be leaving, of course, but he'd be urging her to think well of him. Theories - I've got a million of them.
Feb. 8th, 2008 05:09 pm (UTC)
I agree with you. Manipulation. The other readings are interesting, though.

I like your analysis of the poem's formal qualities. Often I read lazily, forgetting just how consciously these poets craft their meanings.
Feb. 8th, 2008 05:21 pm (UTC)
If you are able to read "lazily," then the poets have done their jobs well. If all that stuff intruded on you, it would likely mean that they made a hash of it, or were too heavy-handed with their craft.
Feb. 8th, 2008 05:50 pm (UTC)
poetry friday
So how do you like the Bryson book? It doesn't seem quite his style, somehow, but I'm curious to read it.

I love Imogen Stubbs. And Ghandi, err, Ben Kingsley...
Feb. 8th, 2008 06:23 pm (UTC)
Re: poetry friday
It is an interesting read. He's keen on pointing out that much of what we think we know about Shakespeare is conjecture, including the portraits that people think are him, but that may not be.
Feb. 8th, 2008 06:46 pm (UTC)
Cloudscome says:
I'd go with the manipulation theory. It sure sounds like some of the best poetic trash talk I've heard... Only far more refined and artistic and finely crafted, of course. :)
Feb. 8th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Cloudscome says:
I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who finds my theory at least plausible.
Feb. 8th, 2008 07:20 pm (UTC)
Was Bryson's book published this year? (I'm trying to figure out if I'm thinking of *another* book, but I suppose I can go hit Amazons or Powells, too).

jules, 7-Imp
Feb. 8th, 2008 07:30 pm (UTC)
I believe it came out in 2007. It was a Chanukah gift.
Feb. 8th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC)
TadMack says:
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang... Oh, the PATHOS! The PATHOS! Definitely over the top manipulation. As so many of the sonnets are -- trying to get a reaction. And we love it, don't we!?
Feb. 8th, 2008 10:33 pm (UTC)
Re: TadMack says:
I'm so glad it's not just me, all alone with my rogue opinions. Not that I'd change my opinions, mind you, but it's nice to have company.
Feb. 8th, 2008 09:35 pm (UTC)
Wouldn't you love your work to be compared to the "sweet singing of birds"??? Mercy, that's pretty.
Kelly, how come you can go to bed with a fever and then still be this smart????
Feb. 8th, 2008 10:35 pm (UTC)
*scratches head & looks bewildered*
Smart? Me?
Why, thank you!
Feb. 9th, 2008 12:40 pm (UTC)
cloudsome says:
Yeah Kelly. You are so clever changing your avatar to fit your comment mood. How'd you do that? It's a livejournal thing, right?
Feb. 9th, 2008 06:31 pm (UTC)
Re: cloudsome says:
Yep, it's a LiveJournal thing. I can't sort out how to do much at all over at Blogger, format-wise, and TypePad and the others leave me equally flummoxed.
Feb. 9th, 2008 01:09 pm (UTC)
Will, the Manipulator. Of course he is---he's a writer. That's what we DO. :)

I'm jealous that you're reading Bill Bryson's book. I've almost picked it up several times, and then told myself: are you kidding? You don't have time.
Feb. 9th, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC)
It's not like I'm tearing through it, exactly, but it is very interesting.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 9th, 2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome.
Feb. 9th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC)
I never fail to learn from your PFs! I felt a little thrill when I picked the same volta moment as you. Maybe if I really worked at it, I, too, could *understand* Shakespeare, instead of just copying down random scraps to hang above my desk!

Mary Lee
Feb. 9th, 2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
I'm sure you understand the scraps above your desk, and it's a start toward Shakespeare, anyway. And, as Mary Poppins would say, "Well begun is half done."

Speaking of Shakespeare (and not Poppins), did you see the comments to last week's PF post? Somewhere in there, I related a story Sting has in his Lyrics book, about fending off a dangerous drunk by quoting Shakespeare. It was a pretty great quote, if you have a moment to track it down.
Feb. 10th, 2008 12:44 am (UTC)
Here's my take:
We value things more because they are finite.
If WS was in his thirties when he wrote this, that would've been at least middle-aged for his time. So it could have been midlife-crisis angst. In the setup of the poem, he mourns the passing of his youth and the decaying of his body, but in the poem's turn, he has to find the jewel of hope in Pandora's box. That is, the upside to being mortal is that we love, and love more passionately because we are mortal.
However, I find no reason why your interpretation couldn't be right. Perhaps the best thing that can happen to a poem is for it to mean so many things to so many people.
I enjoyed your post as much as the sonnet, for phrases such as "schtupping one of her ladies-in-waiting" and "I would never want you to be unhappy. When I'm dead," not to mention the comment about "fending off a dangerous drunk by quoting Shakespeare." Who sez the Bard is dry?
Feb. 10th, 2008 01:14 am (UTC)
The Bard was most certainly not dry.
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )

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