Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 speaks of aging and the end of life, but the sonnet also shows how love for others transforms us. The night of death may take away the last glimmers of one’s life, but a love that accepts sacrifice and suffering makes that life worthwhile.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73
"Twilight on the St. Johns River," 1885, by Martin Johnson Heade. (Public Domain)
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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 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, Consum’d with that which it was nourish'd by. This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

One of the fundamental questions of human existence is whether it is truly better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. We especially struggle with this question when it comes to loving someone we will lose. We reasonably want to know why we should accept this, knowing that we will suffer from the loss.

We can look for an answer in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Shakespeare frames this dilemma as the love of a younger man for someone nearing death. In many of his other sonnets, the bard demonstrates how the poet can cheat death through his verse—the poem itself will preserve his life, and he will attain a certain sort of immortality. Sonnet 73 makes no such claim; the sonnet draws the reader’s attention to the speaker’s decline and how he will soon die.

As he nears the end of his life, the speaker in the poem urges his listener to look at him closely. In so doing, his audience can see plainly the suffering in store for both of them: The older man will soon face death, and the younger man who loves him will mourn.

However, the speaker draws attention to this only to reassure his listener that despite the certainty of this future suffering, love will be worthwhile in the end. Not only will it have been worthwhile, but the willing acceptance of loss makes love stronger.

Autumn and Evening

As the poem opens, the speaker uses vibrant metaphors and imagery to tell the younger man how he may behold the signs of aging in him. Through his creative use of language, he proves that his physical decline has in no way diminished the vitality of his mind.
Losing a beloved in death can change a person for the better, as expressed in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73. “Portrait of an Old Man,” 1916, by Aleksandr Deyneka. (Public Domain)
Losing a beloved in death can change a person for the better, as expressed in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73. “Portrait of an Old Man,” 1916, by Aleksandr Deyneka. (Public Domain)
The first image that the speaker uses says that one can see in him the season of autumn, or perhaps early winter: The end is near. Shakespeare uses metonymy, a figure of speech in which a term stands in place of another to which it is closely related, to describe the winter boughs as “bare ruined choirs.” The speaker draws the listener’s attention to the physical signs of aging in himself. Where natural liveliness has deserted him (as the birds have deserted the winter scene), there is also an element of vitality that cannot be measured by outward appearance.

The second image moves from a time of year to a time of day. The listener is acquainted with Death’s second self in the form of night, and the speaker prepares to meet Death itself in that final evening’s rest. He is in the twilight of his life, and as night takes away the last vestiges of sunlight, so too will Death take the last of the time that remains to him.

“Summer Twilight. A Recollection of a Scene in New England,” 1834, by Thomas Cole. (Public Domain)
“Summer Twilight. A Recollection of a Scene in New England,” 1834, by Thomas Cole. (Public Domain)

The last quatrain establishes time as that which both nourishes and consumes man. It brings him to maturity and ultimately devours him. However, the speaker still has the spark of life in him though his youth has burned to ash. He has a certain vitality that animates him and gives an insistence to his tone.

The listener must look closely, he says; he must fix his gaze on what is before him and see it in a certain way. This is the only image whereby the speaker draws the listener’s attention to a remaining movement. It is not a deserted winter scene or the bleak night that the listener sees, but rather a glowing ember, even if it is about to be extinguished.

"An Open Hearth With a Fire." circa 1770, by Joseph Wright. (Public Domain)
"An Open Hearth With a Fire." circa 1770, by Joseph Wright. (Public Domain)

How Death Is Routed

Brad Leithauser notes in “Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry” that it is in Shakespeare’s couplets (the last two rhyming lines of the sonnet) that the bard often summarizes the whole of the poem that came before it, which is an immense burden to place on two lines. Sometimes the result is unconvincing, but when the couplet succeeds, it clarifies and enhances all that came before.

In this couplet, we are told that the younger man perceives all this decline in the speaker, but the perception of it only makes the listener’s love stronger. Certainly, a part of this is the defiance, the willfulness even, of loving despite the certainty of impending loss. However, his love is also fortified by the courage he takes from this address.

Stephen Zelnick, professor of English literature at Temple University, observes in his essay: “The dying man displays, in the face of death’s sadness, a heroic poise and creativity and sympathy for another. Death has never been more certainly routed. The speaker—a magician, a Prospero—makes the youthful listener see and understand his strength of mind and spirit.”

Unlike in his other sonnets, Shakespeare does not depict a victory over death through some measure of immortality. Rather, the victory is achieved through a defiance of the weakness that death and old age would seem to confer.

Not only does the speaker demonstrate this defiant vitality, but he also confers it upon his listener. Mr. Zelnick adds: “The listener leaves with the precious gift of intelligence, bravery, and sympathy—more than enough to make a man of him.” The speaker is not begging for sympathy but is using some of the precious little time that is left to him to impart a lesson in hopes that the young man will draw consolation rather than sorrow from seeing the speaker so near the end.

The word “leave” in the final line brings us back to the autumn leaves in the beginning of the poem. In this way, the poem comes full circle by taking up the noun and infusing it with a new meaning. So, too, the speaker has given his young audience a new understanding of their relationship: Their parting will not weaken the younger man’s love, but will both fortify it and become the catalyst for personal growth.

What Is Left

Genuine love transforms. As the couplet indicates, stronger love fixes one’s thoughts toward the good of the other.

For the dying man, rather than submit to fear or self-pity, love turns his thoughts to those who mourn. Energy fills his address. Even as he faces death, his creative faculties give life, painting a vivid picture to console his younger listener. His love strengthens the other, for he must be strong for another. His love gives him a reason to suffer well, so that his younger listener may learn and do so in the future.

As he intently watches the one he loves, the younger man not only learns a lesson of heroic sadness but also gains a selflessness and a renewed understanding of the value of human life. He sees the dignity and value of life at all stages and in every condition. This propels him to sacrifice for others, and it is the intelligent capacity to make this choice that makes him human.

Love means being open to change. We must be willing to see the beloved changed, and to allow ourselves to be changed through our relationship with the other. It is our human privilege to be capable of this kind of love, fostering our intellect and courage. Love sets its gaze on the beloved, and instead of a passive gaze, love learns and is transformed.

In this way, the listener in Sonnet 73 is drastically transformed. As night takes away the last of the sunlight in the second image, that sunlight transfers to the listener at the end of the poem. It is the listener who leaves, renewed by the transformative and humanizing power of a love that accepts sacrifice.

Sonnet 73 in the 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare's sonnets. (<a href="http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/ah6h1j">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>)
Sonnet 73 in the 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare's sonnets. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
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Marlena Figge received her M.A. in Italian Literature from Middlebury College in 2021 and graduated from the University of Dallas in 2020 with a B.A. in Italian and English. She currently has a teaching fellowship and teaches English at a high school in Italy.
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