Shakespeare’s Little Autumn Song

Fallen leaves dry and crunch in the cool mornings. Night comes quicker and crisper. Autumn approaches. ‘Tis the season for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.

This post will provide a close reading of Sonnet 73. “Close reading” a work means carefully considering the sounds and structures and senses of language that the writer chooses to convey his meaning. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is one of the richest works I’ve encountered, and its imagery fits perfectly into this fall season.

First, here’s some background on the sonnet form:

Sonnets are tightly structured rhyming poems that traditionally speak about love. The term “sonnet” comes from the Italian sonetto which means “little song.” Sonnets first appeared around 1200 and were popularized by Francesco Petrarch (born in Tuscany in 1304). In an Italian or ‘Petrarchan’ sonnet, the first eight lines present some problem and the last six lines offer a solution. A shift or turn between problem and solution, called the “volta,” occurs around line nine.

By the early 1500s, the sonnet made its way to England and acquired there a slightly different character. The fourteen lines of an English sonnet break down into three four-line sections (quatrains) and end with a rhyming couplet. While Italian sonnets put the volta near the middle of the poem, English sonnets often wait till the last two lines to introduce the shift in thinking.

Sonnets are exciting to me because of their limits. They embody what G.K. Chesterton has called “the wild romance of prudence.” Chesterton uses that phrase to describe Robinson Crusoe, and the best poets, like Crusoe, waste nothing. They treat their words like treasures rescued from a wreck and put them to use in surprising and sometimes amusing ways. The strict limits of the sonnet form challenge the poet to be even thriftier with his words—as Chesterton says, “thrift is poetic because it is creative.”

Here’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Try reading the poem out-loud to get a feel for each word and phrase. I also recommend listening to this audio version.

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

Shakespeare writes most of his sonnets in iambic pentameter. This term used to baffle me, but it’s not so intimidating if you break it down.

An iamb is a unit of sound that contains an unstressed and then a stressed syllable. You might not realize it, but you hear iambs all the time – it’s the rhythm of the human heartbeat: ba DUM.

Iambic pentameter means five (penta) iambs per line, so each line has a total of ten syllables that alternate from unstressed to stressed:

ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM

Shakespeare writes the first line of Sonnet 73 in perfect iambic pentameter:

that TIME of YEAR thou MAYST in ME beHOLD

  ba  DUM   ba   DUM  ba   DUM  ba  DUM ba DUM

The second line’s rhythm also follows iambic pentameter, but there’s something unusual about the sense of the line:

when YEllow LEAVES, or NONE, or FEW, do HANG

First we have yellow leaves—fall—then no leaves—winter—then we’re back to a “few” leaves—late fall? For such a wordsmith as Shakespeare, the odd order is no accident. Shakespeare uses these clauses to play a bit with time. It’s as if the speaker is saying “I’m old, but wait, I ain’t dead yet!” The line suggests that time is not quite constant, and the aging speaker insists he still has something to say.

The third line continues with iambic pentameter. Listen to the sounds Shakespeare chooses:

uPON those BOUGHS which SHAKE aGAINST the COLD,

“Upon those boughs” has such soft sounds: uh; puh; on; bow. The speaker’s voice sounds physically soft and weak—like a bent bough on a withered tree. But the sounds in the second half of the line change dramatically. We get the hard sounds of ‘k’ and ‘g’ and ‘t’ and ‘d.’ When you read “shake against the cold,” your mouth moves in a way that mimics chattering in the cold. The preposition Shakespeare chooses is also significant. The trees and the speaker don’t just shake in the cold, they shake against the cold. Again, we get the idea of opposition to death.

In the fourth line, Shakespeare departs from iambic pentameter. His steady use of that rhythm up till now sets the reader up for a surprise—sort of like a quarterback who calls a run play and then another run and then another run just to set up the surprise of a long pass (my roommate is watching football right now). The fourth line starts with:

BARE RUINED CHOIRS,

These are three heavy, hard stresses. The voice sounds stark and almost angry, which fits the vision of bare black tree trunks in winter. But the line finishes with this phrase:

where LATE the SWEET BIRDS SANG

The second half of the line returns to something closer to the iambic pattern; the pounding heartbeat returns to something more steady. As the speaker recalls the sweet springs of his past, the language becomes tender and peaceful in both sound and sense.

This fourth line also contains a good example of Shakespeare’s thrift—he often makes words do double and triple duty in his works.

Shakespeare doesn’t call his bare trees simply “bare trees.” Instead, he uses the metaphor “bare ruined choirs.” This is an architectural reference: the choir is the part of the church just before the high altar where the religious sit and sing the Mass responses. The left image shows the location of the choir, and the right shows a choir in a French cathedral:

See how the pillars of the choir stretch and branch like trees? Most modern churches don’t have this structure, but readers in Shakespeare’s day would have been familiar with the choir area. The reference to church architecture also introduces a hint of the spiritual world into the poem—the speaker’s vision of nature contains a sense of the numinous.

I’m going to mostly skip the next quatrain (lines 5-8)—though these are some of my favorite lines and sounds in all of poetry—because I want to point out how Shakespeare returns and develops this tree metaphor in the third quatrain.

In lines 9-12, the speaker compares himself to a dying 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.

What a metaphor! A man is like a fire whose life passes from energy and activity into ashes—he is gradually but constantly returning to the dust. And the hotter and brighter he burns, the quicker he expires.

What amazes me is how Shakespeare connects this metaphor to the metaphor of the first quatrain. In the first quatrain, we hear the speaker compare himself to trees in fall and then winter. Now in the third quatrain, we hear the speaker compare himself to a fire. And what fuels a fire? Old, dry wood! Shakespeare doesn’t just use a metaphor and move on. He finds one, explores it, reconsiders it from different angles, and connects his ideas all in a kind of subtle and musical unity.

This sonnet moves from the aging of autumn to the fading twilight years and finally to man’s inevitable “deathbed.” The first quatrain suggests a resistance to this progression—the speaker clings to life like an autumn leaf against the coming winter. But the second two quatrains develop an attitude of acceptance towards death. “By and by” black night comes for all, and eventually the fire “must” burn out. It is a melancholy look at growing old and approaching death, but it is not morbid.

The final couplet leaves us with this final shift in the speaker’s view of death:

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

The person whom the sonnet addresses understands all of this about the speaker, yet loves the speaker regardless. The reality of death does not render love meaningless; instead, it makes love “more strong.” This final couplet suggests that love might be stronger than the separation of death. Death may not be the final word, and so again that hint of the spiritual life enters the poem.

There are many more layers to this sonnet, and the closer you look, the more you’ll notice. I think that is the mark of a true masterpiece—a masterpiece echoes the complexity and mystery of God’s artistry, which can be contained in something as small as a flower of the field or a newborn babe or the fourteen lines of an English sonnet.

I hope you found this close reading enriching, and I hope you try more close reading on your own! At one point in my education, I had got the mistaken impression that poems were full of all sorts of secret meanings and you needed some key to “decode” them. Sadly, many critics do take this approach. But what I’ve learned from the best teachers is that the best poems mean exactly what they say. They just demand that we listen more closely to their language and consider their words as carefully as their creator did—which is not a bad approach to life in general, either.

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