OU blog

Personal Blogs

"That Time of Year" re-examined

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Richard Walker, Friday, 8 May 2015, 01:22

I wrote before about Shakespeare's sonnet 73

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.
But I don't think I did it justice. I've liked this sonnet for half a century, and now I am literally at the time of life it describes, I find I can warm my hands at it.
The way it asks us to look up, then lower our eyes to sunset, then gaze down to reflect on the last embers of a fire is a vivid picture.
Shakespeare was not the first person to think of this metaphor, but borrowed it from the poetry of antiquity. What it so marvelous is his skill in expressing it in the words and rhythms of English. The second line
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang


is an example. In nine words (and 10 syllables) we are carried from "yellow leaves" (the poet lets us know it's autumn, a time of decay) through "or none" (everything is gone) to "or few" (not quite none, but going).

This economy is extraordinary, as is the whole poem with its metaphor of the seasons, the time of day, and the stages of a human life, all rolled into one, and the final plea to hold on tightly against the flickering light.

So my earlier and inadequate attempt to capture the sonnet in a Haiku needs some more work.


Permalink Add your comment
Share post


New comment

Any nostalgia for the 'old religion' in this do you think? Are the bare ruined choirs where sweet birds once sang not simply metaphorical?

New comment

Wow that's a good comment.

It made me stop and think a lot.

No-one can be sure, but monastic ruins were very likely one of the images in Shakespeare's mind. They are poignant even today. Just visit Tintern Abbey (highly recommended).

But he doesn't generally seem to take a religious stance, or a humanistic one, or an atheistic one, or even to believe in the notion of fate (not even in Macbeth). To me he seems almost existentialist, exploring the place of a person in the world, how they relate to the others in that world, and the effects of their choices (they are not preordained to act in the way they do).

New comment

Ah! But there were severe legal restrictions on what could be said about religion on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage - it seems to have been regarded as too profane a place in the Protestant imagination and probably there were deep anxieties about it being used for seditious purposes. I assume that there were also anxieties about pre-Reformation biblical dramas which would not have passed a Calvinist theological muster. Because Shakespeare doesn't address religion directly (or only cautiously ... viz. the reproof that the Archbishop of York gets in Henry IV Part 2) doesn't mean he was an existentialist. That would be like saying that the people who wrote, directed, and produced Hollywood movies for 50 years were a bunch of prudes who disapproved of on-screen nudity.

There are significant religious subtexts to Shakespeare in my view. King Lear seems to have some very significant Christological allusions: "I' th' last night's storm I such a fellow saw, Which made me think a man a worm. My son came then into my mind ....", and, "Milk-livered man. That bear'st a cheek for blows, a head for wrongs...".

New comment

That's all extremely interesting.

I have never ever been a believer but I have always been interested in religion, because it matters to others.

In some ways I think of existentialism as religion sans belief.

New comment

Despite being a cleric, I can promise you that I have no interest in trying to make Shakespeare into some kind of partisan for my cause. My background in Theology makes me alert to the possibility of religious subtexts, of course - and, after all, if there's any value in seeing the Civil Wars in Great Britain in the mid-17th century as "Malvolio's Revenge" as it was famously described by ... I can't remember who ... then the Puritan Government's closure of the theatres is not an insignificant datum.

If one believes in the relevance of context in any attempt to unpack Shakespeare, then it's not really possible to read Macbeth without reference to contemporary beliefs in witchcraft (especially the new King's) or Romeo and Juliet without some awareness of Franciscan attitudes to affective marriage (the role of the Friars is central, of course). Measure for Measure also cannot be appreciated without reference to contemporaneous religious debates about sexual morality. Hamlet is unintelligible without reference to its hugely ambiguous relation to the doctrine of purgatory. Prince Hal/Henry V (like Edgar in King Lear) is also constructively understood in terms of the theological concept of kenosis.

I could go on, but I would simply be reinforcing a suspicion I'm sure you are already entertaining ... that I'm some kind of a religious nutter!

New comment

Oh no, I didn't think that in the least.

I'm interested in what people believe. I care about their beliefs whether I agree or not.

New comment

But to my mind the reason why the bare ruin'd choirs is one of the most famous verse lines in English is somehow unrelated to the author's context. Isn't its poignancy deeper somehow?

New comment

I find it hard to imagine how that line can have the depth of resonance that it does unless one is acquainted with a landscape filled with abandoned religious houses. To read it without some awareness of literal 'bare ruined choirs' in the English landscape seems to diminish the metaphor somehow.

Im Abendrot

This poem makes me me think of "Im Abendrot".

New comment

A fair connection, of course.