Sonnet 73: a View of the Inevitably of Aging, and the Approach of Death

Quite possibly the most fundamentally difficult thing for a man to do, is to examine himself, and come to the realization that his time is limited. We get an insight into this struggle in “Sonnet 73” by William Shakespeare. The excerpt of sonnet 73 that we are going to examine is written by William Shakespeare. This particular sonnet from our textbook is 14 lines long. It is a lyric poem. The poem is in iambic pentameter, which is consistent with Shakespeare, and it has an abab, cdcd, efef, gg, rhyme pattern.

The author opens the quatrain of the poem painting an exact picture of the changing season of autumn. In the second quatrain, he begins to speak about his aging. In the third quatrain, he begins to speak about death. Lastly, in lines 13-14, he speaks about love, in almost a very abrupt way to the average reader. The theme of the poem could be described as internal struggle of aging, and the inedibility of death. Through setting, tone, metaphors, and various poetic devices, Shakespeare crafts a masterpiece, that wholly encompasses the inevitable fear of aging and death.

The author introduces us to the setting in a rather ingenious way. “The 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 the late sweet birds sang.” (Lines 1-4). Upon first glance, it seems that the author is just describing fall, but if you look closely at the first line, there is almost a call to action, without actually making a call. This implied call is demanding the readers examine the season of life of the subject from the very beginning.

This statement, telling us to look to the author again, and is used to transition us from a setting of changing seasons, to the passing time of a day, and its end approaching.” In me thou see’st the twilight of such a day. As after sunset fadeth in the west;” Once again the author asks us to look at him. “In me thou see’st the glowing of such a fire. That on the ashes of his youth doth lie.” (9-10) These three statements telling us to examine the author, give us more than just the setting, they begin to give us insight into the underlying theme.

The theme of the poem is achieved through the use of metaphors. Changing seasons, ending day, and a fire burning out. All of these images are fairly obviously speaking to the passing of time, and approach of an end. All of these images build up this theme, and are confirmed toward the end of the excerpt. “As the deathbed whereon, it must expire.” (11) Without directly saying it, the author keeps relating these images back to himself, and line 11 sums up the stage of his life, and the fear of the inevitably of death.

Throughout the poem, the tone is one of sadness. This tone is achieved through the images of everything ending. Springtime, the songs of birds are gone, day is approaching night, and a fire is dying, and turning to ash, but then the last two lines take a very unexpected turn. The author introduces love as the central focus of the last two lines. “This thou perceiv’st. which makes thy love more strong. To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.” (13-14) The alliteration in the last line of this sonnet, and the couplet of the last two lines come together to bring the most powerful statement of the poem. Also, if you examine the poem closely, a syntax becomes apparent. Behold, cold (1, 3) day, away (5,7) fire, expire (9,11) strong, long (13, 14). The author is trying to relay a message to the reader. That even though his body is growing cold, and that his day is being taken away, and that his fire is coming to an end, that he wants the person he is writing to, to stay strong, and carry on.

I have tried greatly to approach this explication from an analytical standpoint, and to not allow my right brain, or my personal perception to interfere much, but with these last two lines I would like to personally analyze them and take some liberty with the interpretation. We have an image of the subject on his death bed, asking the person he is addressing, to examine all of these changes in him, and the inevitability of death approaching, as he examines himself. With the use of the word deathbed it appears that this is where he is speaking from, and the audience is a loved-one. These last two lines, are bringing comfort to the person. Even though my life is coming to an end, and the sadness is great, that love doesn’t end just because a life does.

That their love for not only the dying subject, but also their love for life, and others will continue to grow. Death and loss can cause one to cherish life, the deceased, other loved ones, and the limited time we have. This is a message that is still relevant 500 years later. One of my favorite songs is by Death Cab for Cutie. The song What Sarah Said addresses similar themes with someone in the final stages of their life. My favorite line simply says “Love is watching someone die. So, who’s going to watch you die?” The last two lines of this sonnet, in my opinion change the tone from sadness to hope in spite of sadness. Death is an occurrence, a transaction, a moment in time, but love; love continues, grows, remains strong.

In conclusion, Shakespeare masterfully uses various metaphors, setting, syntax, rhyme, symbols, and tone to address the fear of aging and death, and the hope for those we leave behind.

Works cited

  1. Mays, Kelly J, “Chapter 15 Language: Word Choice and Order.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 976–986.
  2. Mays, Kelly J, “Chapter 16: Visual Imagery and Figures of Speech.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 988–1017
  3. Mays, Kelly J, “Chapter 17: Symbol.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 1018–1032.
  4. Mays, Kelly J, “Chapter 18: The Sounds of Poetry.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 1033–1069.
  5. Mays, Kelly J, “Chapter 19: Internal Structure.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 1071-1089.
  6. Mays, Kelly J, “Chapter 20: External Form.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 1091–1168.
  7. Gibbard, Benjamin, and Harmer, Nick. Death Cab for Cutie. Plans. Atlantic Records, 2006. CD.
  8. Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
  9. Shakespeare, William. “Not from the Stars Do I My Judgment Pluck (Sonnet 14).” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 10 Mar. 2016, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/time-year-thou-mayst-me-behold-sonnet-73.
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