Shakespeare's Sonnet 73
by E.K., Palo Alto
Cultures all over the world memorialize death in different manners, from the celebratory style of Mexico's Dia de Los Muertos to the solemn ceremony of the United States. Typically, cultures memorialize the death after the person in question passes away, only mentioning it in events such as funerals. Sometimes, however, people seek to accept death as an inevitable consequence before the event itself. This approach is the one taken by Shakespeare in his sonnet 73, in which the poet describes death coming even before the old man in question breathes his last. Shakespeare uses the imagery of a tree in autumn, a day before night, and a fire burning away to describe that death slowly takes away the vitality that man once had.
Shakespeare uses the image of a tree in autumn to represent the image of a man who now teeters on the edge of death but once radiated joy and excitement. When Shakespeare invoke the the imagery of a few "yellow leaves" hanging upon "boughs" on a tree, he attempts to symbolize someone losing the last years of his life as they fall away just like the leaves do from a tree. Next, the branches that "shake" against the cold" represent death, the cold shaking an old and fragile man who knows he will fall eventually. Lastly, the "bare ruin'd" choirs" highlight the weakened state of an elderly man who is a shell of the exuberant person he once was. The three images all come together to create a central theme of death in Shakespeare’s depiction of autumn. At the same time, these images allude to the glory days of the man in question. The mention of "ruin'd choirs" suggests that before everything fell apart, the man’s life resembled a church in its grandeur and celebration. With regards to "where the sweet birds sang," the image reflects a man who once filled the air with as much joy and brightness as the songs of birds do. At the same time, the image of a tree in autumn alludes to the eventual regrowth of the leaves in several months, suggesting that death precedes a rebirth.
In the second quatrain, Shakespeare invokes the image of a day fading away to illustrate a man who is slowly dying in the twilight of his life. When Shakespeare describes the "twilight of such day," he describes the waning stages of the speaker's life. Twilight, the transition from the dimmed evening to the darkened night, is the final part of the day before the world falls asleep. This image illustrates the speaker living through the final years before his death, knowing the prime of his life is over. Next, the "sunset fadeth in the west" signals the disappearance of any last traces of beauty in the man's life. Sunset, a natural phenomenon when the sun emits vibrant colors, is a spectacle of beauty. However, the sunset and beauty, just like that of the man's life, has faded away. The "black night that doth take away" is the death that will "take away" the narrator's life, as a parallel to the taking away of day. Shakespeare continues by describing night as "death's second self'; just as night takes away the brightness of day, death takes away the brightness of life. finally, the night that "seals up all" reflects the death, which effectually closes away someone's life. In comparison the the 1st quatrain, where Shakespeare hints at better days to come, the second quatrain has tone of finality.
In the third quatrain of his sonnet 73, Shakespeare shows a picture of fading fire to reflect the man's life fading away. The "glowing of such fire" contrasts with a normal crackling and bright fire, hinting that the once-powerful flame now consists of glowing embers. Like the embers of the fire, the speaker now lives a life far removed from the radiant years of his younger self. The "ashes of his youth" the fire shows gives the image of the fire lying upon the ashes from which it once burned fiercely, providing heat and light. Similarly to the fire amongst its ashes, the man now lives with the memories of the adventures he went through in years past. The memories of a life where the man gave the world brightness still linger on. When Shakespeare finally concludes the thought of the fire with "consumed by that which it was once nourished by," he means the man and fire now die because of what they once used. The fire was nourished by wood, giving it the flames it once had. However, the same wood took the fire away later by turning into ash. In the same sense, the man edges closer to death as he lives more. Although the speaker once brimmed full of life, as time went on, the life in him edged him closer and closer to death. The final description of fire shows that even a once-fiery life loses its brightness forever.
In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare describes death coming even before an old man breathes his last. He uses the imagery of a tree in autumn, a day before night, and a fire burning away to depict how death slowly takes away the vitality that man once had. The first two images, of a tree in autumn and a day drawing to a close, are part of cycles: the tree can sprout new leaves, and night can turn back to day. In using these images, Shakespeare suggests that death isn't a permanent state because it ultimately leads to a kind of renewal or rebirth, perhaps through children or the survival of a work of art. However, the next image, that of a fire burning away, gives a sense of finality because the ashes will never create another fire. Using the fire, he offers a new perspective by suggesting death doesn't lead to rebirth; rather, it is the ultimate stage of life. Nevertheless, with the last couplet, Shakespeare hints that love actually strengthens with the realization that death is the last part of life. Amid the endless void of darkness that death appears to bring, love is a shining light that gives it meaning.
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