Poetry: Shakespeare – Sonnet 73

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 ruin’d 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 death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

Fall. Autumn. This is the time of year when we watch all things slowly fade into cold and darkness. This is a time of beauty, a time when we watch the colors bloom on the trees and bundle ourselves in warmth and friendship. And yet, it is also a time of change and sadness. For many, November marks the end of the year, the darkest time before Advent. It’s a time when we remember what we’re thankful for and what we have lost, recognizing the time that has passed. And in all this, there is a balance. Amid this coming darkness and reminders of death, we give thanks and begin to look forward to the coming Light and Life. This sonnet balances all of that, too, in describing three elements of autumn that reflect time, life, and love.

We start by looking at a broad picture and a narrow one: the speaker and his life and the scenery surrounding him. That is one of the more fascinating aspects of this poem. This sonnet elements three things in each subsection. The first four verses compare time to falling leaves and falling leaves to the remnants of a choir. We behold leaves in the speaker where they “do hang / Upon those boughs.” What does this mean? People do not have leaves, but we do have thinning hair and loosening clothes, which hang upon our slender frame as we age, which shakes with the chill of age and coming winter. And Shakespeare gives us another image too: a chorus of birds. Leaves remind us not only of age and the end of autumn but also of the birds that once sang there and now have been disrupted by time and cold.

We move on, looking past the trees to the fading sun. The day is ending, and so too do we notice that time is fading for us and the speaker. For the setting sun marks not only the end of a day, time passing in its regular course, but also death. For night and sleep are the “second self,” the twin or mirror of death. In death, we sleep but a little while. But still, we dread its coming as we do the darkness of night. So as the day ends with the setting sun, so too is our life’s end sealed in the evening of our days. But that brings us quickly to the next section. Now in darkness, we see not by the light of the sun but by artificial lights: fire. We see the fire in him, glowing still, but feeding on what gave him life. What’s left is hardly a fire but embers, the remnants of that spark of life seen in youth, each sustaining and consuming the other.

So what do all these things teach us? The seasons change, days end, and time consumes all things. Everything wears down sooner or later; those things that brought us joy fly away. Death comes to us all, as time and age are no respecters of persons. But the final couplet leaves us in hope! Time, this world, us – all are fading things. Knowing this, cherish them. Cherish the changing seasons and all they bring – both thankfulness and reminders of those now gone. Cherish the colors as they fade and life as it flies away. Cherish your life, a fleeting mist, yet more precious than sparrows (Ecc. 11:7-12:7, Mat. 10:29-31, Jas. 4:13-15). Cherish those around you. And consider all these things, and ask as the Psalmist asks the Lord, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psa. 90:12) Remember, ponder, and cherish. All is fading –

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

So let us love well and rejoice in these days that we have while we walk them, taking in stride all that the seasons bring with them. Let us love well and be thankful until we leave this world for one everlasting.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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