I much prefer this one to Sonnet 18, but that could just be because I’ve not had to be exposed to it quite so many times.
This poem is all about love, but particularly love in association with mortality as it explores the idea of ageing and the effect it has on other’s feelings towards you – intensifying love. The poet describes himself as an old man through comparison with nature and seems filled with regret as he hints at the joys and happiness of his youth. This is not so much about an impending death, but more the death or end of youthful joy.
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.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Again, I’m not going to tell you who Shakespeare is and I don’t think this needs a lot of background knowledge. However, if you are the sort who likes to dig around I’d recommend reading his his sonnets from 71-74 as these are often studied together as they are all about mortality and contemplation of his death.
The main one is clearly mortality as Shakespeare seems to be describing the effects of ageing in a quite despairing manner, but there is also the use of nature or natural elements to convey metaphorically the impact the ageing process has on life.
The last couplet also connects the sonnet to love as Shakespeare expects his friends and families feeling to intensify as he grows older.
This is divided into three quatrains that each use nature or a natural element to metaphorically explore the impact of ageing.
In the opening quatrain Shakespeare tells us that we can see autumn in him. His looks have obviously faded as comparing himself to a tree with yellow leaves or without leaves (maybe telling us he feels he is approaching the end of the autumn of his life), which doesn’t stand up to the beauty of a tree in the blossom of spring or the fresh and thick green of summer. In addition to his appearance, he uses autumn to tells us that there is also less spark or joy in his life as the ‘choirs’ of ‘sweet birds’ have disbanded and no longer sing, suggesting that he doesn’t feel the joy or enthusiasm of his youth any more.
The next comparison is to a single day or particularly the light of a single day. If we imagine the sun’s cycle from sunrise to sunset as the course of birth through to death, we can see that Shakespeare feels he is coming towards the end and his life is ‘fadeth’. When things fade they lose their colour and their beauty and this quatrain contains the idea that the blackness of night is gradually taking this away, even as the poem progresses, and Shakespeare is thinking about what will inevitably follow. The connection with death is made first through the suggestion that he is at his ‘twilight’, so barely hanging on to any light at all, and then directly. It might confuse you what ‘Death’s second self’ means, but it is pretty simplistic really as the darkness of the night carries age old associations with death.
The final quatrain sees an analogy with a fire. Imagine a fire just beginning and gradually growing as youth, then as it roars and leaps above your wood pile as being mature, then as it ages we see it clinging to smaller bits of wood and just smouldering linking to old age, before finally being extinguished completely representing death. Shakespeare’s imagery is clearly filled with sorrow at the passing of his youth as he isn’t in anyway nostalgic about his past glories, but here just laments their passing mentioning the ‘ashes of his youth’. This suggests that he cannot celebrate the past as it has been left ruined and worthless like ash – dirty, smelly and a mere fragment of the glorious wood and flame that represented his youth. Again this stage of his life is linked to death or his ‘deathbed’ rather than looking back nostalgically.
The couplet at the end of the sonnet now addresses the audience directly. He tells us we because of our mortality and our short stay on earth it is important that we love ‘more strong’ or make the most of our time/youth.
Language and techniques
Well, the main thing here is that you explain that Shakespeare has used these different analogies (autumn, the sunlight and a fire) to relate his feelings about ageing and death.
All these analogies are negatively focused. At no point do we reflect on the joys or wonder of his youth, but instead we consider the desolation of ageing and the certainty of approaching death. I think the best phrase to sum this up would be the ‘bare ruined choirs’, which approaches youth as something that has been lost or destroyed (there is no more song in his life) rather than appreciates the former beauty of the bird song. Additionally to prove this point, you could talk about the consistently links to death when he describes his tree as having no leaves, the darkness being ‘Death’s second self’ and the ashes of the fire being our ‘deathbed’.
I’d also mention the repetitive nature of these analogies; they all share the same purpose, but add additional detail to Shakespeare’s perspective of ageing. First we have the absence of song/joy, then we have fading beauty or relevance and finally we see the loss of the intensity and heat of the flame.
You could also specifically deal with the couplet at the end and explain Shakespeare’s feeling that love of youth and each other should be ‘more strong’ or intense as we all ‘must leave ere long’, effectively because life is short/transient.
Here the quatrains are used to compare ageing to nature and natural elements:
1. Ageing = Autumn – cold, absence of song.
2. Ageing = Sunlight – fading beauty, absence of joy/light, focus on oncoming death.
3. Ageing = Fire – losing heat and intensity, crumble to nothing as ash.
4. (Couplet) Appreciate everything while you’re here.
We have discussed the meaning of each quatrain, but not why they have been organised in this order. It’s a further example of Shakespeare’s frustration with his own mortality and the brevity of existence; each analogy is a reduction of time. We begin comparing life to the seasons and a whole year, then the much briefer duration of a day and finally the extremely short life of a fire. This is deliberate; he wants to make us ponder how short life is and to make us appreciate it – if we all lived like our lives were a fire we would try to make the most of every second, as opposed to a year where we might be thinking on a bigger scale to make the most of a day… I hope this point is clear (I suspect not).
I think the tone is one of regret that his life is moving towards its end and that is reflected through the pessimistic focus on the certain future of death rather than optimistic nostalgia. However, there is also a air of instruction and we are supposed to contemplate our own mortality and consider making the most of our time and youth.