Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Exploring the Bard's Nooks and Crannies

Sonnet 73 – Shakespeare

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 ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest 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 seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I recently acquired Stephen Booth’s excellent edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the commentary of which outweighs the text by a ratio of 4:1 or so. What I enjoy most about Booth’s commentary is that it solves problems while still leaving room for interpretation. Reading it made me feel like a child being shown how to perform a satisfying or enjoyable task by my father. Say, for example, using a chainsaw. Let me know if what follows is a uniquely male experience or not – I believe it to be.

A vivid yet slightly fictional scene appears before me – some branches of a tree need to be removed, and I want to be involved, because being involved means using a chainsaw. My father turns it on, narrating his work with a constant stream of “now the trick here”s and “you’ve really got to watch out for”s. I just want to hold the chainsaw and have at it. Maybe I wrestle the chainsaw from his hands, accidentally cutting notches up and down the trunk of the tree. Or maybe I slice of the index finger of my left hand, and as blood spatters my father’s white t-shirt, his eyes tell me over and over again “I told you to be careful.”

In fact, my father would probably faint if I sliced my finger off. The above just struck me as more compelling than the repeated sound of my father nervously sucking air through his teeth while I steer our minivan through the streets of London on an early driving lesson. His expression suggests that what is unveiling before him is the final act of a heart-wrenching tragedy, the terrible conclusion of which only he can foresee. It might be around the next corner, the next red light, or the next attempt at parallel parking.

My point is that Booth isn’t like my father. He hands over the chainsaw and just says to the reader, “Here it is, do with it what you please. There are a few notes in the back to help you with the really tricky stuff, but otherwise you should be fine.” I dare not suggest that a sonnet is anything as dangerous as a chainsaw or a minivan (albeit a French one), but he lets the reader actually do the work. Too many editors want to guide the way. Booth succeeds because he just illuminates its most dangerous pitfalls. I shall endeavor to continue in that vein.

In each of the three quatrains, the speaker gives the intended audience a different figurative comparison to explain his old age. The second and the third start with the same clause (“In me thou seest”) while the opening quatrain has a different introduction (“That time of year thou mayst behold”). The “mayst” raises an interesting question. Using today’s understanding of this modal verb, its use here suggests that the first figurative sign old age is there, but that the addressee may not actually be seeing it at this moment. The second and third quatrains use the simple present tense, without any modals. Given that the objects to be seen in those latter quatrains are figurative, the sense of conditionality may be carried over. The Economist style guide (an excellent resource) states that “might,” not “may,” denotes a hypothetical meaning. So this first change – the yellowing and thinning out of the speaker’s metaphorical leaves – is definitely happening. The question is simply whether or not the addressee is actually beholding it. What I don’t know, but would like to find out, is if this distinction between “may” and “might” was in place in Shakespeare’s time. Were there other possible nuances to these modals?

Once we look beyond the visibility of these signs of the speaker’s aging, we can tackle the three signs themselves. The second quatrain’s initial metaphor enhanced by a simile is probably the least exceptional. Already well established in Shakespeare’s time, the associations of death with night and sleep should not seem all that remarkable to modern readers. The initial metaphor, however, contains some definite talking points. Its simplicity is quickly compounded. At first we have a tenor (the speaker’s signs of old age) and a vehicle (the time of year, which is autumn). Shakespeare does not directly equate the speaker with a dying tree; he merely describes in greater detail the time of year suggested by the speaker’s aging.

Line 3’s boughs, with their varying amounts of yellow leaves, reminiscent of hair loss or a mangy beard, are granted illogical agency. They are said to “shake against” something. By transferring this agency, Shakespeare certainly brings the tree to a more human state of life, perhaps standing in for the speaker. It is as if the winds face some sapping resistance while blowing against this tree. These winds aren’t just winds though, they are “cold,//Bare ruined choirs.” That is to say, they have taken on a dilapidated form of their summer selves. Perhaps these winds create no sound, or the absence of pleasant, harmonious bird calls creates a cold effect. Either way, the phrase unites the senses: touch and hearing are linked here. To even refer to the winds as choirs is to metaphorically allude to them with a now absent vehicle. They are surely only choirs if they carry birdsong. They were choirs. Instead of calling them non-choirs, Shakespeare just piles up the negative modifiers. It’s like calling the same autumn wind a broken air freshener. In spring and summer, it carried or seemed to emit pleasant smells. Now it does not emit any smells. Maybe there is something visual here. Picture the choirs, not in their cold, bare, ruined state, but in fine voice. Now picture birds chirping sweetly in the trees. Both seem pleasant enough. Perhaps by simply mentioning that there were metaphorical choirs of birds, Shakespeare creates a sense of loss. These choirs are not functioning anymore and that is sad in some way. There is very little in Shakespeare’s autumn breeze that resembles choirs of birds, albeit cold, bare, ruined ones. But by simply knowing that they were there, that these sounds were carried on the wind, the silence becomes mournful.

By this stage, it should be clear how important it is that editors such as Booth take a back seat. I should do likewise. For me, the fun in this poem comes from picking it apart slowly. I find that I am able to read it and arrive at a certain conclusion about the meaning of a word or phrase. Then, upon returning to the poem just minutes later, it can convey a completely different meaning. The ambiguity and complexity of Shakespeare’s poetry combine to load a seemingly simple sonnet with manifold meanings. To reach the lyrical heart(s) of this poem, you have to struggle with it a bit. You have to be allowed to make mistakes.


Evan said...

Jamie, I love your blog!

karen said...


I think the bare ruined choirs refers to the boughs of the trees, not the wind. I am thinking of the physical choir in a church. What do you think? What do the critics say?