“When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold”: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73


Dear Readers,

I know it’s only been five months since I posted a Shakespeare poem, but what’s fall without the most famous fall sonnet of them all? Admittedly it’s a bit gloomy, but I hope your autumn views (still spectacular here) make up for it.

Sonnet 73

William Shakespeare

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.

A view from my neighborhood.

A view from my neighborhood.

“bend not those morning stars from me”

As I’ve probably mentioned, I’m on hiatus from a five-year stint in grad school. I spent most of my research time on early modern (what used to be called Renaissance, but hey, why use one word when two are available?) English literature of all sorts. I’ve steeped long enough in the brew of Shakespeare and Milton and Lanyer and Hutchinson and Donne and Marvell to become pretty snooty about what I find appealing and what I don’t.

When it comes to sonnets, Donne and Shakespeare are the masters of the form in my book, but from time to time, I page through my Renaissance—I mean, early modern—shelf and re-discover Sir Philip Sidney.

Astrophil and Stella (or Star-lover and Star, for those of us who opted out of Latin and Greek as teenagers) is a long sonnet-and-song sequence, the first in English, which traipses around between Sidney’s (or his poetic persona’s, if you prefer) interests in poetry and Lady Penelope Rich. He borrows conventions and form from Petrarch, with his own modifications, of course, and sometimes the poems are really lovely, if a tad melodramatic.

What I like about Sonnet 48 is its convoluted conceit: the speaker begs his lover not to look away from him, for her eyes simultaneously give him light and kill him: “O look, O shine, O let me die and see” (l. 8); it is only in death that he will be able to “see” her fully. And in the idiom of the time, death refers not only to death as we understand it, but also to orgasm (from the French le petit mort), so beneath the veneer of the courtly lover’s plea, we have a much earthier subtext.

Here’s Sonnet 48 from Astrophil and Stella:

Soul’s joy, bend not those morning stars from me,
Where virtue is made strong by beauty’s might,
Where love is chasteness, pain doth learn delight,
And humbleness grows one with majesty.
Whatever may ensue, O let me be
Co-partner of the riches of that sight;
Let not mine eyes be hell-driv’n from that light;
O look, O shine, O let me die and see.
For though I oft my self of them bemoan,
That through my heart their beamy darts be gone,
Whose cureless wounds even now most freshly bleed,
Yet since my death wound is already got,
Dear killer, spare not they sweet cruel shot;
A kind of grace it is to slay with speed.

“Sweet love, renew thy force”

After the awful and exhausting events of last week, I felt drained just contemplating the search for this week’s poem. Then I realized that today is the Bard’s birthday, and my dear Aunt Rita’s, and the choice was clear.

A sonnet!

Who doesn’t love fourteen lines of love poetry? I’ve taught the sonnets whenever I could, and students are always amazed at just how much meaning Will packs into those lines (and that the first cycle is addressed to a man — that’s mind-blowing to them, and perhaps unsurprising, since some editions “regularize” the pronouns in the earlier poem. Don’t get me started.).

My favorite is 116, which we asked a friend to read at our wedding, and which is probably one of the five most famous. I remember hearing it (or rather, part of it) first in Sense and Sensibility (adapted by Emma Thompson, bless her, and directed by Ang Lee), and that’s one of my favorite literary combinations.

But that’s not the first time I heard a sonnet. I can precisely date my first memory of one of the poems: my tenth birthday. At the time, my father was working out of state, but he and my uncle (my mother’s brother) took the time to sit in my uncle’s kitchen and record a tape (yes, I’m that old) of songs and poems for me. I treasure it; it’s on my desk as we speak. My uncle played the guitar and my dad attempted the drums, and they both sang and read. Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, and even a few originals made it on to the tape. I listen to it every year on my birthday, but it’s been so long that I can hear clips of the tape in my mind if I choose to.  The banter and the squeaky chair are hilarious.

My father is an excellent reader (more on that some other time), and so I’m choosing to memorize the sonnet he read for me, “Sonnet 6–Number 56,” as he corrected himself.

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 56

Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d,
To-morrow sharp’ned in his former might:
So, love, be thou: although to-day thou fill
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness:
Let this sad int’rim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
As call it winter, which being full of care
Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.


Happy birthday Shakespeare!

“wylde for to hold”

Who so list to hount, I knowe where is an hynde,
But as for me, helas, I may no more:
The vayne travaill hath weried so sore
I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde.
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore,
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
Sins in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
As well as I may spend his tyme in vain;
And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
Noli me tangere, for Caesars I ame;
And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.

I first read Thomas Wyatt’s poetry in college, and had the singular, wonderful experience of listening to the mellifluous voice of my English-born Renaissance literature professor read this sonnet, a translation from Petrarch.  Wyatt (1503-1542) was rumored to be Anne Boleyn’s lover, though he managed to escape execution for the supposed offense, and often this poem is read as a wistful forgoing of her companionship.

The poem’s form never interferes with its meaning, and, I think, makes this one of the most pleasing sonnets to read aloud. I’ve reproduced it here with something close to its original spelling, and I’ve tried to make the punctuation as unobtrusive as possible (you’ll find different punctuation in almost every published version of the sonnet).

Something I noticed on this reading: At line 11, the speaker’s note that the “hynde” wears a diamond collar indicating Caesar’s ownership begins with “And” — it’s almost an afterthought. The exhausting chase makes the hunt impossible, not Caesar’s prior claim.