“This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73

By Dennis Abrams




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 seest 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
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.



That time of year thou mayst in me behold

In me you can see that time of year

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

When a few yellow leaves or none at all hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

On the branches, shaking against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Bare ruins of church choirs where lately the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

In me you can see only the dim light that remains

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

After the sun sets in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Which is soon extinguished by black night,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

The image of death that envelops all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

I am like a glowing ember

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

Lying on the dying flame of my youth,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

As on the death bed where it must finally expire,

Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.

Consumed by that which once fed it.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

This you sense, and it makes your love more determined

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Causing you to love that which you must give up before long.


that time of year (1): i.e., being late autumn or early winter.

When yellow leaves… (2): compare Macbeth (5.3.23) “my way of life/is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf.”

Bare ruin’d choirs (4): a reference to the remains of a church or, more specifically, a chancel, stripped of its roof and exposed to the elements. The choirs formerly rang with the sounds of ‘sweet birds’. Some argue that lines 3 and 4 should be read without pause — the ‘yellow leaves’ shake against the ‘cold/Bare ruin’d choirs’ . If we assume the adjective ‘cold’ modifies ‘Bare ruin’d choirs’, then the image becomes more concrete — those boughs are sweeping against the ruins of the church. Some editors, however, choose to insert ‘like’ into the opening of line 4, thus changing the passage to mean ‘the boughs of the yellow leaves shake against the cold like the jagged arches of the choir stand exposed to the cold’. Noted 18th-century scholar George Steevens commented that this image “was probably suggested to Shakespeare by our desolated monasteries. The resemblance between the vaulting of a Gothic isle [sic] and an avenue of trees whose upper branches meet and form an arch overhead, is too striking not to be acknowledged. When the roof of the one is shattered, and the boughs of the other leafless, the comparison becomes more solemn and picturesque” (Smith 148).

black night (7): a metaphor for death itself. As ‘black night’ closes in around the remaining light of the day, so too does death close in around the poet.

Death’s second self (8): i.e. ‘black night’ or ‘sleep.’ Macbeth refers to sleep as “The death of each day’s life” (2.2.49).

In me thou see’st…was nourish’d by (9-12): The following is a brilliant paraphrase by early 20th-century scholar Kellner: “As the fire goes out when the wood which has been feeding it is consumed, so is life extinguished when the strength of youth is past.” (See Sonnets, ed. Rollins, p.191)

that (12): i.e., the poet’s desires.

This (14): i.e., the demise of the poet’s youth and passion.

To love that well (12): The meaning of this phrase and of the concluding couplet has aroused much debate. Is the poet saying that the young man now understands that he will lose his own youth and passion, after listening to the lamentations in the three preceding quatrains? Or is the poet saying that the young man now is aware of the poet’s imminent demise, and this knowledge makes the young man’s love for the poet stronger because he might soon lose him? What must the young man give up before long — his youth or his friend? For more on this dilemma please see the commentary below.

Sonnets 71-74 are typically analyzed as a group, linked by the poet’s thoughts of his own mortality. However, Sonnet 73 contains many of the themes common throughout the entire body of sonnets, including the ravages of time on one’s physical well-being and the mental anguish associated with moving further from youth and closer to death. Time’s destruction of great monuments juxtaposed with the effects of age on human beings is a convention seen before, most notably in Sonnet 55.

The poet is preparing his young friend, not for the approaching literal death of his body, but the metaphorical death of his youth and passion. The poet’s deep insecurities swell irrepressibly as he concludes that the young man is now focused only on the signs of his aging — as the poet surely is himself. This is illustrated by the linear development of the three quatrains. The first two quatrains establish what the poet perceives the young man now sees as he looks at the poet: those yellow leaves and bare boughs, and the faint afterglow of the fading sun. The third quatrain reveals that the poet is speaking not of his impending physical death, but the death of his youth and subsequently his youthful desires — those very things which sustained his relationship with the young man.

Throughout the 126 sonnets addressed to the young man the poet tries repeatedly to impart his wisdom of Time’s wrath, and more specifically, the sad truth that time will have the same effects on the young man as it has upon the poet. And as we see in the concluding couplet of Sonnet 73, the poet has this time succeeded. The young man now understands the importance of his own youth, which he will be forced to ‘leave ere long’ (14).

It must be reiterated that some critics assume the young man ‘perceives’ not the future loss of his own youth, but the approaching loss of the poet, his dear friend. This would then mean that the poet is speaking of his death in the literal sense. Feuillerat argues that

Even if we make allowance for the exaggeration which is every poet’s right, Shakespeare was not young when he wrote this sonnet. It is overcast by the shadow of death and belongs to a date perhaps not far from 1609. (The Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays, 72)

This interpretation is less popular because it is now generally accepted that all 154 sonnets were composed before 1600, so Shakespeare would have been no older than thirty-six. However, the sonnets were not initially printed in the order we now accept them, and an error in sequence is very possible.

Sonnet 73 is one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, but it has prompted both tremendous praise and sharp criticism. Included here are excerpts from commentaries by two noted Shakespearean scholars, John Barryman and John Crowe Ransom:

The fundamental emotion [in Sonnet 73] is self-pity. Not an attractive emotion. What renders it pathetic, in the good instead of the bad sense, is the sinister diminution of the time concept, quatrain by quatrain. We have first a year, and the final season of it; then only a day, and the stretch of it; then just a fire, built for part of the day, and the final minutes of it; then — entirely deprived of life, in prospect, and even now a merely objective “that,” like a third-person corpse! — the poet. The imagery begins and continues as visual — yellow, sunset, glowing — and one by one these are destroyed; but also in the first quatrain one heard sound, which disappears there; and from the couplet imagery of every kind is excluded, as if the sense were indeed dead, and only abstract, posthumous statement is possible. A year seems short enough; yet ironically the day, and then the fire, makes it in retrospect seem long, and the final immediate triumph of the poem’s imagination is that in the last line about the year, line 4, an immense vista is indeed invoked — that the desolate monasteries strewn over England, sacked in Henry’s reign, where ‘late’ — not so long ago! a terrible foreglance into the tiny coming times of the poem — the choirs of monks lifted their little and brief voices, in ignorance of what was coming — as the poet would be doing now, except that this poem knows. Instinct is here, after all, a kind of thought. This is one of the best poems in English.
(John Berryman, The Sonnets)


The structure is good, the three quatrains offering distinct yet equivalent figures for the time of life of the unsuccessful and to-be-pitied lover. But the first quatrain is the boldest, and the effect of the whole is slightly anti-climactic. Within this quatrain I think I detect a thing which often characterizes Shakespeare’s work within the metaphysical style: he is unwilling to renounce the benefit of his earlier style, which consisted in the breadth of the associations; that is, he will not quite risk the power of a single figure but compounds the figures. I refer to the two images about the boughs. It is one thing to have the boughs shaking against the cold, and in that capacity they carry very well the fact of the old rejected lover; it is another thing to represent them as ruined choirs where the birds no longer sing. The latter is a just representation of the lover too, and indeed a subtler and richer one, but the two images cannot, in logical rigor, co-exist. Therefore I deprecate shake against the cold. And I believe everybody will deprecate sweet. This term is not an objective image at all, but a term to be located at the subjective pole of the experience; it expects to satisfy a feeling by naming it (this is, by just having it) and is a pure sentimentalism.
(John Crowe Ransom, Shakespeare at Sonnets).


I love this sonnet, a love inspired I large part by this essay on the sonnet by Camille Paglia:  It taught me a lot.


“The sonnet was a medieval form perfected by the Italian poet Petrarch, who was inspired by the courtly love tradition of southern France.  From him, the fad of sonnet writing spread throughout Renaissance Europe.  Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey introduced the sonnet to England, though the style they favored was highly artificial and ridden with ‘conceits,’ showy metaphors that became clichés.  Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser restored Petrarch’s fluid lyricism to the sonnet.  But it was Shakespeare who rescued an exhausted romantic genre and made it a supple instrument of searching self-analysis.  By treating the sonnet as a freestanding poem rather than a unit in a sonnet sequence, Shakespeare revolutionized poetry in the same way that Donatello, liberating the statue from its medieval architectural niche, revolutionized sculpture.

No writer before Shakespeare had packed more into a sonnet or any other short poem.  Sonnet 73 has a tremendous range of reference and a fineness of observed detail.  Shakespeare’s mobile eye prefigures the camera.  Love, the sonnet’s original raison d’etre, recedes for a melancholy survey of the human condition.  The poem is interested less in individual suffering than in the relationship of microcosm to macrocosm – mankind’s interconnection with nature.

Structurally, Sonnet 73 follows Surrey’s format.  In the Italian sonnet adapted by Wyatt, fourteen lines were divided into two quatrains (a quatrain is a set of four lines) and a sestet (six lines).  The Elizabethan sonnet, afterward called the Shakespearean, used three quatrains and a couplet – two lines with the bite of an epigram. Shakespeare treats the three quatrains in Sonnet 73 like scenes from a play:  each has its guiding metaphor, a variation on the main theme.  These metaphors split off, in turn, into subordinate metaphors, to end each quatrain with a witty flourish.  The insertion of ‘in me’ to start each quatrain gives the poem immediacy and urgency and encourages us, whether justified or not, in identifying the speaker with the poet (1, 5, 9).  The regular repetition of that phrase makes us hear and feel the poem’s triple structure.  ‘In me’ operates like a stage cue, prompting the entrance of each metaphor from the wings.

In the first quatrain, man’s life is compared to a ‘year’ in a northern climate of dramatically changing seasons.  The aging poet pinpoints his location on life’s spectrum as the transition from maturity to old age, when autumn shifts to winter.  The opening metaphor of ‘time’ yields to a bleak image of man’s body as a tree:  the bare ‘boughs’ shaken by the ‘cold’ wind are like the weak limbs of an elderly man, trembling with fear at approaching death (1-3).  The branches tossed and outlines against the sky resemble the imploring arms of victims trying to escape fate.  It’s as if man is crucified on his own frail body.  Scattered ‘yellow leaves’ clinging to the branches evoke other afflictions and losses of age, such as fading, thinning hair (an issue for Shakespeare, if our portrait of him is accurate).  The sporadic drift of leaves to earth (like sands through an hourglass) is re-created in the hesitant, tapping rhythm:  ‘yellow leaves, or none, or few.’  Core energy is tapering off.

As the quatrain ends, the ravaged, skeletal tree melts into a broken building (4).  The ‘bare ruined choirs’ belong to a medieval abbey, like those destroyed a half century earlier by Henry VIII when the Church of England seceded from Rome.  The picturesque scene evokes a vanished civilization, now reclaimed by nature.  So too, Shakespeare implies, do all human efforts end.  The ‘sweet birds’ who ‘late’ (lately) sang from the trees but have now fled south recall the boy choirs who once filled the chapel with music.  (‘Choir’ is also the area of a church where services are held.)  The waning of song suggests that poetry came more easily to the young Shakespeare than it does now.  The ‘bare ruined choirs’ may also obliquely refer to the theaters where his career once flourished (and which were vulnerable to fire as well as closure by city authorities).

The second quatrain compares man’s life to a ‘day” (5).  This metaphor is as ancient as Oedipus.  (The Sphinx asked Oedipus, ‘What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at night?’  He replied, “Man.”)  Again, Shakespeare visualizes precise degrees in a process of gradual change.  Our ‘twilight’ years are stages in sunset.  The poem unveils a brilliant western tableau:  the sun, symbolizing our physical vitality, has dropped below the horizon, but the sky is still ruddy with the afterglow (6).  That too, like all earthly colors, will shortly (‘by and by’) dissolve into the ‘black’ of night (7).  The second quatrain concludes as the first one did, with an ornate apposition elaborating a prior line.  Night is personified as ‘Death’s second self’ – his twin or alter ego – obliterating the sun and ‘seal[ing] up all in rest’ (8).  The implication is unsettling:  sleep is a daily rehearsal for our final repose.  At night, the world is a graveyard of sleepers, shrouded and entombed in their soft beds.  The mental movement sketched by this quatrain is extraordinary:  our eyes fly out to the earth’s inflamed edge, then falls back and goes black, leaving us with only the helpless, tactile sensation of sleep.  Six sibilants in line 8 produce a sound of ‘sh-h-h,’ hushing but also paralyzing.

The third quatrain compares man’s life to a ‘fire,’ an everyday utility endowed by Shakespeare with a dynamic biography (9-10).  He projects himself into the fire’s ‘glowing’ phase, when the blaze is long gone and even the small, darting tongues have sputtered out.  All that remains is hot coals, embers lying on a thick layer of ‘ashes,’ debris of the fire’s flaming youth.’  Shakespeare’s metaphor makes our body temperature an index of ambition, physical stamina, and sexual passion.  When it cools, we too will slowly ‘expire,’ that is, breathe our last (11).  The acrid ashes are a ‘deathbed’ – the second bed of the poem – because they are the funeral pyre of worldly desires.  The fire metaphor ingeniously returns us to the start of the poem:  these logs burned down to ash were cut from the ‘boughs’ of the man-tree in the first quatrain (3).  For Shakespeare, the human body is on fire from our day of birth.  The thought is extended by a paradox:  as living beings, we are simultaneously ‘nourished’ and ‘consumed’ (12).  Creation and destruction are wed:  the hotter the fire, the swifter it dies.

The final couplet is a direct address to the reader as well as the poet’s stern self-reminder:  ‘This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.’  Whatever we seek or crave – a person, a profession, a high ideal – is evanescent.  Nothing survives the ash pit of the grave.  Though surrender and farewell are cruelly built into human life, there is value in the doing.  Our sense of life’s transience intensifies its pleasures.

The sonnet’s three submerged quatrains are like fleeting, elegiac, self portraits:  the poet as a year, a day, and a fire.  Shakespeare, like Darwin, sees humanity beset by impersonal forces.  There is no reference here to God or an afterlife.  Consciousness itself is elemental, an effect of light and heat that dissipates when our bodies are reabsorbed by nature.”


I’m going to be out of town for a couple of days, so my next post will be Sunday evening:  an introduction to our next play, Romeo and Juliet.

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7 Responses to “This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

  1. Lesley says:

    I liked Paglia’s comparison of Shakespeare to Donatello. Great critique! “our eyes fly out to the earth’s inflamed edge, then falls back and goes black, leaving us with only the helpless, tactile sensation of sleep.” Shhhh.

  2. Minnikin says:

    Camille Paglia: She always worth reading/listening to – even when you don’t necessarily agree with her. Her essay above, is great.

  3. Lesley says:

    Berryman’s, as well, is a wonderful critique of a great sonnet.
    Thanks for including the essays, Dennis.

  4. Eddie Chism says:

    I can’t agree that Paglia is always worth reading – I found her columns at Salon to be almost always completely awful with almost no redeeming qualities – you know the ones where she constantly defended Rush Limbaugh and talked about how John McCain was such a maverick. It’s not just that I disagreed with her. Certainly, we can learn a lot from people with whom we disagree. It’s important to get other points of view. But her arguments were almost always completely inane, echoing Fox News and Rush Limbaugh talking points, full of logical fallacies and offering no real reasoning for what she believed, just asserting some controversial point of view as if anyone who disagrees is an idiot and then moving on to the next paragraph about how she is so superior to everyone else. I don’t understand how anyone can take those columns seriously at all. (Please note that I’m not addressing her arts criticism or books here at all, just the column on Salon.)

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