written in 1609
Obtained from X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama
. 8th ed., Longman
thou may'st 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
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,
'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
As the deathbed
whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
In this sonnet Shakespeare shows that love will not die as everything else must. Shakespeare was an old man when he wrote this sonnet and it seems very personal, but that can only be speculated upon. He uses metaphors to show that death touches everything and to illustrate the time of death drawing closer. He writes in the poetic form of the sonnet and uses it effectively to illustrate his message. He flows through the form, weaving a picture that shows the permanence of love.
The narrator of this sonnet could arguably be William Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare's death was in the year 1616. This sonnet was written in 1609. He senses his time drawing near and writes a sonnet to a loved one. He wants to express his feelings about his nearing death. It is unclear who his loved one is, but he writes to show just how strong the love between them is. He wants to express the beauty of that love and its defiance in the face of death. Only in the last two lines do we realize he is addressing his loved one. In line thirteen he writes, "This thou perceiv'st which makes thy love more strong,". Near the end of Shakespeare's own life he writes this sonnet to someone dear to his heart.
Shakespeare expresses a tone of sadness and reluctance through the diction he uses in his sonnet. His reluctance can be felt in line three when he writes, "Upon those boughs which shake against the cold". Against is a very strong word choice. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, second college edition, against is defined as, "in a direction or course opposite to." Cold is the coming winter, which is the metaphor Shakespeare is using to illustrate death in the first four lines of his sonnet. The boughs shaking against the cold are Shakespeare poised in opposition to his death. We can also sense his feeling of impotence in line seven, when he writes, "Which by-and-by black night doth take away,". He is now speaking of a closing day, which is his second metaphor in the sonnet. The phrase Shakespeare chooses invokes the picture of having it snatched, unwillingly, from his grasp. Life is being taken away from him by death, just as night steals all the sky when the day has finished. In line twelve he shows us a dying fire as his third metaphor. He writes, "Consumed by that which it was nourished by". Again the word choice is very deliberate. Consumed gives the feeling of having been engulfed or maybe even wasted. His life is not simply fading away, but instead is being consumed. Shakespeare chooses his words carefully to show us his feelings about his waning life.
Shakespeare uses metaphors from the natural world to effectively describe his own passing. He chooses them carefully to give the reader vivid images that invoke emotion. Shakespeare begins his sonnet by telling of a fading season in the year. He writes, "That time of year thou may'st in me behold", telling the reader that the season he is speaking of reflects his own situation. In line two he writes, "When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang" and we see a common picture in Autumn; when trees are clinging to the last bit of evidence showing a life once lived. In line four he writes, "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang". Once perches for things full of beautiful song, the branches are lofty choirs deserted in death. The song of life has left Shakespeare's soul and only lives the memory of the time song filled it. In line five Shakespeare writes, "In me thou see'st the twilight of such day", comparing his life to the fading day. In line six he writes, "As after sunset fadeth in the west". Using this he paints an even more brilliant picture in the reader's head of standing and looking westward at the gloaming. Shakespeare chooses to make the metaphors very vivid so that the feelings and ideas he is having about death are imparted to the reader.
The third and final metaphor Shakespeare uses is of a dying fire. In lines nine through twelve he writes,
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.
He compares his life to a fire burning out its final embers
. The warmth of life is fading
from him. Shakespeare makes an effective
use of all these metaphors to accurately
describe how his life too must surrender to the passing of time.
Shakespeare uses the form of the sonnet to organize his metaphors into a coherent picture of time fading. All of the metaphors he uses relate well to each other on the grounds that they all depict periods of time. The sonnet form uses quatrains rhymed in three different sets. Shakespeare uses a different metaphor for each of those sets. What is extremely effective is the order in which he chooses to write them in. The first metaphor depicts a season in the year. The second metaphor ends a single day. The third metaphor shows a single moment. This order is extremely important to give the reader the impression of time running out. Passing from a large time period to a small time period illustrates that time is growing shorter and shorter in the Shakespeare's life. All of the metaphors come together perfectly to bring Shakespeare's dwindling life to the forefront of the reader's imagination.
Shakespeare chooses to use contrast to show the permanence of love in the face of the transience of life. In lines thirteen through fourteen he writes, "This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong to love that well which thou must leave ere long". Instead of his loved one's affection ending, it is growing in contrast to his shrinking time. These last two lines are used to show that love is not affected by time as other things are. Time only serves to make love stronger. Their love will still persist even though he must die. Shakespeare wants this contrast to make it that much more evident to the reader. He effectively manipulates the form, which breaks in rhyming pattern and scheme at the end of the sonnet, to provide a contrast to the previous metaphors and show us his point. Love is not bound by death and, unlike the passing of moments, days, and seasons, it remains.
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