Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Sunset Fadeth in the West

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William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is a classic example of his sonnets on aging and death. It’s part of a series of four sonnets (71-74) that have a similar theme. He utilizes imagery, punctuation, and metaphor to portray his theme of aging and death, yet at the last gives a reminder to his reader that the moments preceding should be enjoyed.

Shakespeare uses so much imagery from autumn and winter that paint the picture of a world slowing down, dying, and becoming dark. He talks about the yellowing leaves, the migration of birds, sunsets, dying ashes. The yellowing leaves put in the reader’s mind the images of fall and the weather growing colder (He also uses a similar phrase in sonnet 17, “papers, yellowed with their age”). Birds migrate south for the winter leaving the branches “where late the sweet birds sang” (line 4). Sunsets, of course, signal the end of the day and the fading of the light. The dying ashes that he references come from the last moments of a dying fire. All of this imagery points our minds towards the end of things. This all contributes to the overall theme of the poem about the poet's own aging and approaching death.

Fiery Arizona Sunset
Shakespeare talentedly uses his punctuation and utilizes the form of his sonnet to drive his point further into the reader’s mind. Line 2 is a great example of this. The commas make the reader pause in the middle of the line and the word “hang” is deliberately placed at the end of the line, leaving it to hang in the air. This goes along perfectly with the imagery of that same line, a picture of just a few leaves still clinging to the trees. Eleven out of his fourteen lines end with some form of punctuation, be it comma, semi-colon, or period. The reader is typically forced to at least give a small pause at each of these before continuing the next line. Shakespeare invites us to slow down, enjoy the moments, between each line before hurrying to the end.

Shakespeare’s imagery very much plays on the use of metaphor, making the entire sonnet a conceit. This is used in a very similar way in Shakespeare’s sonnet 97. In this sonnet all of his imagery and metaphor refers to the winter time. We get some of the negative imagery concerning winter but at the end are rewarded with a few hopeful lines about the coming of spring. Sonnet 73 does not necessarily have a hopeful ending but points out to the reader that the knowledge of the coming loss of the poet makes their love grow stronger and that the remaining time should be used. T. Fleischmann, contributor to the book Critical Survey of Shakespeare’s Sonnets said about Sonnet 73 that “Although Shakespeare uses other sonnets to rally against death and to seek immortality through art, in Sonnet 73 he redirects that energy away from eternal aspirations and into the present moment…His speaker sees no reason to hide from mortality. Instead, he embraces change as a reason to more fully live in the present.” We are reminded that death, though it may be the end of life, affords us the opportunity to live life to its fullest.

Shakespeare is a master of imagery, form, punctuation, conceit, and metaphor. Sonnet 73 is a popular example of his use of these principles to remind us of the fleeting nature of life as it fades to death while urging us to take advantage of the now in strengthening love and relationships.

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