Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73: Drama in a Lyric Mode

When Odysseus returns to Ithaca after twenty-years (Odyssey, Bk. XVII), no one recognizes him, not even the nurse who raised him; but Argos, his dog, knows him by the sound of his voice.

The loss of voice in poetry is disabling and leads to fundamental misreadings. Hearing students read poetry aloud is discouraging, and professors reading is often not much better. We think even of lyric poetry as a verbal puzzle, a weaving of figures and allusions, confined within a closed cell of formal rules, and not as a theatrical script or musical score to be performed. Without the voice, we miss the experience of the poem entirely as I will show with one of our most frequently anthologized poems, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.
Sonnet 73

That time of year thou may’st 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 seee’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.

Both Camille Paglia and Helen Vendler, bold readers who think freely about this sonnet, miss the poem’s emotional force and drama because they by-pass the rhetorical issues that a performance reading would require. It would be difficult to perform the poem without attending to the following rhetorical issues:

Who Speaks?

Interpreters of the sonnets identify the speaker as Shakespeare himself, but this is difficult to maintain with Sonnet 73. The sonnets have been dated in the 1590’s when Shakespeare would have been at most in his mid-thirties. The speaker in the poem refers to himself as in the late autumn/ early winter of life, in the twilight of his days, and as on his deathbed. Shakespeare, at that time, had not yet written most of his strongest plays. The sonnet’s speaker does not fit with a man in his thirties and so ripe with creative powers.

To whom about what?

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets propose to defeat death by the permanence of the sonnet itself, inspired as it is by the poet’s object of desire, the young man or woman who is the direct recipient of his verses. So in Sonnet 74, for example, the recipient is instructed to consider the death of his body as the passing only of a meaningless container while the spirit within continues to live in the lines he holds in his hands – “The worth of that is that which it contains/ And that is this, and this with thee remains.” The poem carries the message directly, and the writing and sending of the sonnet to the beloved and the beloved’s reading of the sonnet complete its limited dramatic scene.

Sonnet 73, however, is different from the start. The speaker urges his listener to look at him closely. He directs his listener to notice (“thou mayst in me behold”) the physical signs of his aging; he tells his listener how to look and what to see (“In me thou see’st”); and, line nine, what to imagine his eyes see; in the close of the poem, the speaker summarizes what his attentive listener has just seen (“This thou perceiv’st”) in this process of discovery, even what the listener may be reluctant to admit he sees. The speaker is energetic, even aggressive, in urging his beloved to look closely. The slow movement of the lines, an effect produced by monosyllables, shows the speaker as deliberate and determined. The speaker and listener share the scene and are present to each other and interacting directly.

In contrast, it would seem odd to imagine that the recipient of this written letter/poem is the intended listener. What can the recipient see, gazing at the printed page? You might say the speaker wants to be remembered, but that is too general an abstraction and contradicts the pointed urgency with which the speaker requires to be seen. This sonnet, like all plays, provides a blueprint for realizing a scene, with characters and with vocal presentation that brings it to life.

In what circumstances?

The rhetorical framework directs the reader of Sonnet 73 to reconstruct a scene in which the speech belongs to a dying man. The speaker and listener are at two different levels of understanding. The speaker possesses wisdom and poise his young listener lacks. The youthful listener may be blinded by his wish to hope for the best, or by the polite wish not to notice what his eyes see. The speaker’s intensely imagined verses teach his young friend how to see and what to feel.

With what objective?

The speaker notes that what he has directed his listener to see will “make thy love more strong.” The dying man has told him something that will strengthen the listener’s love. This may at first seem strange since the poem emphasizes the speaker’s loss of “glowing fire” and the song of the “sweet birds” of his youth. My students happily, and incorrectly, conclude that the old man is teaching his youthful listener to appreciate the vitality of his youthfulness and the fleeting gifts of time and nature. After all, what can a young person learn from an old man near death’s door?

With what success?

But Sonnet 73 eludes this unremarkable message – treasure your youth! The speaker has something more important to teach his young listener who, without his help, cannot perceive and, most important, conceive what his eyes look upon. The speaker insists that his young listener see something remarkable. The dying man displays, in the face of death’s sadness, a heroic poise and creativity and sympathy for another. That phantom, Death, has never been more certainly routed. The speaker — a magician, a Prospero — makes the youthful listener see and understand his strength of mind and spirit.

Although the speaker’s youth is gone, he has not relinquished his love for song and the heat of passion. Indeed, these are more poignant now they are fading. Shaken by the palsy of aged weakness, the speaker conjures the sweet birds’ song, even as the ruin he has become. He beckons to death, that black night in which all life is sealed up in eternal rest. But for all this, he urges his beloved listener to notice the ember of youthful fire that burns on, all but consumed yet persistently nourished. The stately procession of these quatrains, the poise and order of his thinking, the profusion and wit of metaphors, this superb balance of order, imagination, and emotion is a gift to the beloved, a lesson in how to be a consummate man, even at the edge of the abyss.

The concluding couplet explains what has been accomplished. The dying man has managed by his performance to make “thy love more strong” and to help his listener to love well what he — in a surprising twist, not the dying man — “must leave ere long.” The speaker asks for no pity. He wants instead to be listened to well so that his youthful beloved will appreciate the gift of his performance and carry it forward into his life. The listener leaves with the precious gift of intelligence, courage, and sympathy – more than enough to make a man of him.

Reading Aloud

Can you read poetry aloud without considering these rhetorical dimensions? You can, and most do. Just adopt the “Poetry Voice”; the voice that embraces each tiny flower in the springtime, the voice not uncomfortable with the word “wondrous”; the voice that can begin with “oh” without embarrassment. Once we reconstruct the poem rhetorically, however, we can hear the canny actor’s voice Shakespeare requires in this scene. As readers, we have the task of making that voice work properly.

The appeal is to performance. The youthful listener is directed to experience the brilliant performance of the aged man on his deathbed, and remember him that way, as a man who maintains his poise and produces clear-headed images and metaphors, in stately order, even in the face of death. In this way, the performance belies the tendency of the argument. His song is not gone, the sun has not set, and the embers have not gone cold; in fact, he may never have sung so well and his fire never burnt so brightly – that’s what the beloved, perhaps his son, is compelled to notice, marvel at, and remember. The man is dying and has never been more alive. There are two celebrations going on here: first, the speaker’s battle to the last breath to remain alert and alive; and, second, the dying man’s precious gift to his beloved visitor, the demonstration of love and courage in the face of catastrophe … a demonstration of how to live.


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