Happy Birthday to the Bard

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday. To celebrate as Shakespeare would have liked, make sure you contemplate your own inevitable decline by listening to Izzy Isgate reading Sonnet 73. Simply click on the link below to listen.

Empty boughs at Studley Royal, North Yorkshire. (c) NTPL.

Empty boughs at Studley Royal, North Yorkshire. (c) NTPL.

Izzy’s recording is included on our ‘Virtue and Vice’ mobile app as part of our thematic exploration of the dissolution of the monasteries. We invited Izzy, a postgraduate student at York, and a talented singer/songwriter, to do the reading in order to reflect the northern roots of our exhibition and its protagonists.

You can read a transcript of the sonnet, along with my explanation, after the jump.

Sonnet 73, by William 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 ruin’d 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 nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

'Cold, bare ruin'd choirs' or simply 'bare ruin'd choirs'? Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, in winter. (c) NTPL

‘Cold, bare ruin’d choirs’ or simply ‘bare ruin’d choirs’? Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, in winter. (c) NTPL

Commentary
Shakespeare’s weary speaker opens his sonnet by complaining that he is old: he has reached the late autumn of his life. He conjures up a picture of bare tree branches, outlined against the stark winter sky, a reminder of his own vulnerability and weakness. In a surprising move, the speaker mingles together the image of leafless branches, only recently thronging with songbirds, and a description of the ‘bare ruin’d choirs’ of the former monastic houses.

Shakespeare is referring to the choir stalls of abbeys and monasteries, which not long before (by implication, during a happier summer) were filled with the voices of choristers, but now stand stripped of their roofs and open to the sky. His sonnet is a testament to the striking imaginative power that these ruins possessed only a few decades after the dissolution of the monasteries.

As so often in Shakespeare’s poems, it is possible to read key lines in subtly different ways. In lines three and four, is Shakespeare using a metaphor to compare ‘those boughs which shake against the cold’ to the abandoned choirs, or is he describing the leafless branches actually scraping against the stone?

The speaker continues to lament his age: he is in the twilight of his years, and the black night of death is creeping upon him. He is the last embers of a fading fire, and has burnt up his own youthful vigour. The last lines capture another delicate ambiguity. Do they mean that the sonnet’s imagined audience, the young man to whom Shakespeare addresses the first group of his sonnets, sees that the speaker is close to death and loves him all the more because of it? Or do they mean that the young man sees in the poet a reminder of his own mortality and inevitable decline, and so loves his own youthful vigour all the more fiercely because he realizes that it cannot last?

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