When I read a poem, – Sonnet 73, in this case, – I first read the words, and try to think what they mean. Shakespeare uses a lot of common words, but in ways that we’re not used to nowadays, so I try to grasp the meaning instead of the actual words. This way, you can save yourself some trouble when you come to a word you don’t know, by just skimming over it and listening to the context. You can always go back later. I mean, who understands a Shakespeare sonnet the first time through? I’ve been reading the Bard for years, and he’s still a bloody mystery at times. He’s famous for his eloquent words, but once you get past that, you see he’s really just like you or me. That’s why he’s so popular: because so many people, even today, still share his feelings. I overlook his old English way of speech, and try to get an idea of what he’s really saying.
When I read this poem the first time, most of it doesn’t make sense to me. The only thing that particularly stands out to me is when he says, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold.” I think of the very end of autumn, or the beginning of winter. Of course in Arizona we don’t see this sight very often, but I picture dying trees with dried out leaves, out in a field of snow. There’s no sign of life: just rocks, twigs, a few trees; dreary and gray. A picture like this is timeless. There’s no knowing what year it is, or what millennium, for that matter.
Sooo, I didn’t get a whole lot out of it. Let’s go back and read it again…
Okay, he seems to be implying that he’s gonna kick it any day now. Or perhaps he’s just remarking on his own mortality. He gives us the picture of a dying fire. His words are “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 / Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.” Of course no one’s really going to see this “fire” burning in him, but it’s a good metaphor. So I’m thinking of this cold bleak winter that I already described, and then there’s some house someplace with an old fashioned fireplace. The fire was pretty big to begin with, but now it’s getting low, smothered in its own ashes. Very soon, it will be gone all together.
In fact, the whole first three stanzas are sort of depressing. The author talks about “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” and describes himself as being between sunset and night. Then he gives us the dying fire metaphor, and I get the distinct impression that he has a sort of a dull outlook on life in general. Like if we’re all going to die in the end, what’s the point? This is a pretty commonly asked question, actually; and Shakespeare seemed particularly interested in it. It’s addressed in two of his most famous tragedies: multiple times in Hamlet, and in Macbeth, with the famous soliloquy:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
So once we have this background info on dear Mr. Shakespeare, it would be easy to consider him a rather a pessimistic kinda dude, and it’s not a complete shock to find that attitude here, in one of his sonnets; although they usually have a more cheerful tone. But in most of the guy’s sonnets, the last two lines sort of change the direction of the poem, or give it some little twist. I’m happy to say that this poem is no exception, and that I was clever enough to figure this out all on me lonesome. Understanding a poet is much easier if you’re familiar with his work. As a matter of fact, that’s why I’m writing about Shakespeare and not Wordsworth: I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare in my time, and none of this other guy. So as confusing as Shakespeare is, I have a bit of an advantage, small though it may be. Shakespeare’s sonnets usually lead the reader down one path, and then, just when we think we have it figured out, thrust us onto another. In this poem, I see all these sad lines about the meaninglessness of life, but at the end I read, “This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong / To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” The poem is not about death, it’s not about destruction: it’s about love. It’s about enjoying what you have while you have it, because you don’t know when it might be gone forever.
When winter comes and bites with frost,
When happiness seems all but lost,
Then into darkness must I fall,
To answer the dread reaper’s call:
Extinguished like the dying flame
In death that makes all men the same.
But this the comfort you can give:
To love me still while yet I live.
People like to paint Shakespeare’s works as extremely confusing, but the idea behind them is familiar to all of us. Shakespeare used funny language, sure, but he wasn’t a genius or anything; just another guy, going through life. He worried about the future. He wondered about death. He loved, he lost, he felt.
This sonnet shows us how life is fragile; how sooner or later, we will all die. But it goes on to say that life’s uncertainties make it all the more precious, and encourages us to live while we still can: to “love that well which thou must leave ere long.”