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” 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:


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:


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.


On the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul: Contemplating Caravaggio

As the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul today, I thought I’d write a post about the time I saw the two apostles together.

Last year, I saved up and visited Rome with a friend. I had asked my old art professor (who was raised Catholic in Lebanon) for recommendations about which works to see and was most excited by what he said about the Cerasi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo.

The chapel contains two works by Caravaggio called “The Conversion [of St. Paul] on the Way to Damascus” and “The Crucifixion of St. Peter.” Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a master and innovator of chiaroscuro painting. Chiaroscuro is an Italian term that means “bright dark” (chiaro = bright; oscuro = dark) and chiaroscuro paintings use high contrast, deep shadows, and significant highlights to create emotion and drama.

Take Caravaggio’s “Taking of Christ” (1598) as an example:

See how the dark background and armor of the Roman guard surround and threaten Christ? Caravaggio uses light sparingly, as if it is something too precious to waste, and this makes the places where light falls all the more significant. It highlights differences in facial expressions and spiritual states: dismay in St. John (on the left); tension and anger in Judas the betrayer; cruel anonymity in the soldiers whose eyes are hid by helmet and shadow; concern in the onlooker on the right (a self-portrait of Caravaggio). Christ’s face, though pained, possesses a unique composure. Caravaggio also uses light to draw attention to the hands. St. John stretches his out in supplication; Judas grips; the soldiers push and shove. Christ’s remain folded in prayer.

Caravaggio’s work is full of drama, and so too his personal life. Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, gives this summary:

He had this terribly, terribly difficult life. He was a troubled man. He was a violent man. He had a sense of abandonment that I think went with him wherever he went. I think he has problems in his relationship with God . . . he paints on the edge of doubt . . . And he has terrible trouble with authority in the secular political sense . . . the pope and the cardinals, they want him to be part of their world but he just somehow can’t be that kind of artist. He can’t be the artist who doths his cap, the courtier artists . . . [He] has to run off away from authority into the street. He has to go fight with swords, he has to go and be with prostitutes.

I had learned some of this in art classes and had come to love Caravaggio the man and the painter, and so I looked forward to my visit to the Cerasi chapel as a sort of pilgrimage. My art professor told me to spend a long time with each work, and that I must pay attention to Saint Peter’s eyes.


We visited the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in the early evening. I’m not sure if it was the time of day or if it’s that the works are less known, but whatever the reason, we found the church quiet and just a few visitors praying in the pews.

The Cerasi chapel stands in an alcove to the left of the high altar. As you approach, you cannot see the Caravaggio works from a distance because they hang on each side of the alcove, facing each other rather than the viewer. You must kneel at the front of the chapel to get the best view. How different from most museum displays, where works are front and center on a white wall and usually accompanied by a bench for more comfortable contemplation.

Here’s a picture of the chapel, with “The Conversion on the Way to Damascus” on the right and
“The Crucifixion of St. Peter” on the left:

And here are the paintings straight on:

“The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” shows three figures with obscured faces struggling to prop up St. Peter’s cross. St. Peter—who was once too cowardly to admit his acquaintance with Christ—was ultimately crucified upside-down for his faith. Caravaggio uses the three figures to create a circular movement in the painting, which St. Peter’s body position then opposes. Caravaggio depicts St. Peter as literally and figuratively existing on a different plane from his accusers, and his face alone is bathed in light. It suggests this passage from St. John’s Gospel:

And this is the judgment: Because the light is come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest: because they are done in God.

For Caravaggio’s painting of the conversion of St. Paul, I think there is no better description than Sister Wendy’s:

. . .it is that reputation of the wild violent disreputable Caravaggio that makes this picture so moving. He is showing us St. Paul, who was also a kind of ‘bad boy’ at the beginning: a narrow intolerant man who angrily persecuted the Christians. He was riding on a mission to intensify the persecutions when suddenly, terrifyingly, he had a vision. Christ appeared to him. He was blinded and thrown off his horse. There is a significance here because a man on horseback is a proud man, in control above the others. But once thrown off his horse, all the trappings of power and dignity and self-certainty are roughly removed.

Look at Paul: absolutely vulnerable, legs out-stretched, arms raised to heaven as he falls [with] eyes shut since he has been blinded. Now he cannot even see what is in front of him let alone have vision superior to anybody else. Caravaggio paints him with compassionate truthfulness so that we see what it means to be thrown off a horse: not just coming down to the level of others but laid flat. And Paul becomes even less important because with a stroke of utter brilliance Caravaggio shows the whole event not in terms of Paul but of the horse. It is the horse who is spotlighted as central, careful not to tread on the poor creature that has so unexpectedly slid beneath his belly. Paul has become lower than the beasts—the man who thought himself able to judge and condemn others . . . his useless sword and armour flat on the ground, exposed to the light of truth.

Each painting itself is incredibly powerful. But then I remembered my professor’s instructions and looked at Saint Peter’s eyes. He looks out of the painting, across the space of the chapel, and straight at Saint Paul in the middle of his conversion.

Caravaggio painted this intentionally. For me, this is what makes the two works such a singular wonder.

Through the grace of Christ, Simon the fisherman becomes Peter the oft-mistaken Apostle who finally becomes Peter the Saint—rock of the Church who lays down his life for Christ. This Peter looks back across his shoulder, across space and time, to Saul. Saul, who persecuted the Christians and stoned Saint Stephen, at that moment on the Damascus road takes his first breath as Paul the penitent convert who would become Paul the tireless evangelist and finally Paul the Saint, who poured his life out “like a libation” for Christ and his flock.

By design, Caravaggio’s “Crucifixion of St. Peter” leads the eye back to the conversion of St. Paul, just as the life of faith is a continual return to conversion in Christ. Caravaggio shows Saint Peter, in his martyrdom, looking back on the most humble moment of conversion, and the body positions of the two saints reinforce this: St. Paul’s figure almost perfectly reflects St. Peter’s. The saints do not seek to become martyrs and they do not seek personal glory. They only seek to follow Christ.

The similar composition of the two paintings also sets off this difference: St. Paul’s figure extends out toward the viewer, while St. Peter’s draws back. Conversion stretches out to change the soul in the here-and-now; martyrdom, and death in general, draw the soul away from temporal experience. Truly, St. Paul encountered conversion on the Damascus road—he was thrown from his horse and blinded.  In his crucifixion, St. Peter was drawn back, removed from our physical reality, and drawn up into the beatific vision.


So, if you can, say a little prayer for the soul of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He died an exile at the age of 38. He may have been on the way to Rome to receive a pardon, but he never made it. Yet I think that someone who could paint so powerfully the drama of conversion, the struggles of the life of faith, and the fruits of following Christ, must be somewhere on the road up Mount Purgatory toward the heavenly gates.