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The Matter of Time Passing
Studying debates centered around Sonnet 73 led me to one letter by Robert Berkelman in which he explains that time is passing throughout the poem. There are three distinct images given in the poem, one of the autumn, turning to winter, one of the twilight, and one of a smoldering fire. Berkelman argues that each image is given in a specific order as to the passing of time. His fellow scholar replies (in the same source), saying that "the two images are simply different pictures of the same time of life, as the image about the fire is a third." After examining all of the images and the poem, my conclusion is that this debate simply does not matter. The sonnet is about more important things than time passing. Whether or not the time is passing or the images refer to the same time, they still teach us the same thing, and represent an older age in life.
Of Youth and Men
The more we consider the meaning behind the sonnet, the less important time truly becomes. This becomes clearer and clearer as we understand that Shakespeare may not have been talking about actual death at all. An anonymous online source at Shakespeare Online analyzed Sonnet 73, and mentioned something that changed my perspective: "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." Shakespeare's first images might not immediately bring this idea to our mind. Picturing the "twilight of such a day" when the "sunset fadeth in the west" could mean aging or death or both. It is only later, as we read the image of the fire that more specificity is given. Shakespeare writes:
"In me thou see't the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire."
This line is what separates the poem from its fellow grouping of poems about death and age, by mentioning youth. In the first of these sonnets, Sonnet 71, we read "No longer mourn for me when I am dead" and "And mock you with me after I am gone." Both of these lines seem to obviously relate to actual, physical death. Though these sonnets are related and similar in composition and ideas, here in Sonnet 73 Shakespeare clearly points out that the what that is expiring on the ashes of the fire is not the physical body, but youth. Thus, Shakespeare does not necessarily mourn dying, or even mourn older age, but mourn the loss of youth, whether that be youthful ideas or youthful passions.
How This Can Be Uplifting
As I pondered, it originally seemed a pretty sad poem, focusing on the inevitability of losing youth. It is the couplet that saves it. Shakespeare writes:
"This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long."
Right in the beginning of the couplet Shakespeare breaks iambic pentameter with the strong word, This, catching our immediate attention. Heading back into iambic pentameter he explains that his lover perceives his inevitable age, and though one day he must leave, or die, that day is yet to come, and love should only grow stronger because of that knowledge. This poem is uplifting because despite aging and the loss of youth, Shakespeare writes this last couplet, showing us that love is not just for the young, but can continue to grow "more strong" in older age, even until death.
"Sunset fadeth in the west" but it is still beautiful.
Photo by Garrett Fisher