The Death of Creative Power in Sonnet 73
Most of the 127 sonnets Shakespeare wrote to one of his close male friends are united by the theme of the overwhelming, destructive power of time, and the counterbalancing power of love and poetry to create and preserve beauty. Sonnet 73 is no different, but it does present an intriguing twist on this theme. Most of these sonnets address the youth and beauty of his male friend, as well as poetry's power to immortalize them, but number 73 addresses the author's own mortality and the friend's love for him. Also, subtly woven into this turning inward is a lament that the creative vitality represented by the poems themselves is fading away, along with Shakespeare's own life. Shakespeare seems to mourn most not his own mortality, but the fact that the creation of his love poems must itself one day cease, and this is a "death" more keenly felt by Shakespeare than mere mortality.
As usual, the sonnet breaks into four convenient sections, the three quatrains and the ending couplet. Each segment presents a new image to drive the point home.The first quatrain begins "thou mayst in me behold," then the second "In me thou seest," and the third also "In me thou seest" again. This repetition lends unity to the theme, and helps convey ideas from one segment to the next. What follows in each stanza is a new image of decay and death. The sequence and relationship of these metaphors shows a conscious effort at continuity, showing the death of the creative power in various guises.
The first quatrain uses one of the oldest metaphors for approaching age and imminent death there is, the coming of autumn. A couple of inventive images make the metaphor work in an especially apt way, however. In the first couple of lines, nothing is unusual; Shakespeare laments that when his friend looks at him, he sees "That time of year . . ./ When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold" (1-3). This is a straightforward complaint that, like autumn, the poet is moving gradually into old age, with the winter of death right around the corner. But Shakespeare's description of the tree limbs in their bare autumn dress is key to the whole poem. He calls them "Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." The barren tree branches are the "choir," or the place where the choir sang. But
the "sweet birds" are no longer there. Given that the entire sequence of poems is a sequence of songs, Shakespeare's lament can be seen as a lament that the songs themselves, the poems, will cease. He was one of the sweet birds, or his poems were. At his death, no longer will there be any new songs to praise his friend.
The next quatrain lapses into a more mundane metaphor. The seeming proximity of sleep and death has long been a subject of English poetry. One noteworthy aspect of the metaphor here, though, is that Shakespeare doesn't use...