Shakespeare's Sonnet 73: Summary, Theme & Analysis

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  • 0:02 The Poem
  • 1:34 Poem Structure
  • 2:12 First Quatrain
  • 2:39 Second Quatrain
  • 3:13 Third Quatrain
  • 3:34 Final Couplet
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 73' is one of his most widely read poems. In this lesson, you'll learn what it's all about, what some of the big ideas are in the poem and how he goes about presenting those ideas. Then you'll have the chance to test your understanding with a quiz.

The Poem

In 'Paint it Black,' the Rolling Stones sang, 'I wanna see the sun, blotted out from the sky. I wanna see it painted, painted, painted, painted black.' Mick Jagger wasn't the first guy to express thoughts of death by using the color black or mentioning a disappearing sun. You see, William Shakespeare did it over 300 years before him in 'Sonnet 73.' Shakespeare's poem uses three major metaphors for death, but he surprises the reader in the end by flipping this gloomy poem into one about love.

Before we analyze 'Sonnet 73,' let's read through it.

That time of year thou may'st 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 perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Poem Structure

The first thing to note is that this poem is an Elizabethan sonnet (also called a Shakespearean sonnet). That means that the 14 lines of the poem are divided into four parts. There are three quatrains, or groups of four lines, and a final set of two lines called a couplet.

Shakespearean sonnets work by presenting a problem in each of the three quatrains, and then proposing a solution to the problem in the final couplet. So, the way to break down a sonnet is to take it four lines at a time, then look closely at the ending couplet to see how the writer solves his issue.

First Quatrain

In the opening four lines, Shakespeare presents some pretty standard images of growing old. The speaker of the poem, who may or may not be Shakespeare himself, compares himself to a tree in the fall. What leaves are left on the branches are 'yellow' and there aren't many left, or possibly 'none.' And his voice? Maybe it once sounded like 'sweet birds' but these days it's sounding like a ruined choir. Not pretty.

Second Quatrain

If a bare tree weren't enough, Shakespeare drops one of the most commonly used metaphors in the second quatrain when he compares dying to a setting sun. The speaker says he's in the 'twilight of such day' and the sun is fading 'in the West.' Night is coming for the speaker, and just to make sure you get this none-too-subtle metaphor, Shakespeare explains that night is 'Death's second self.' Got the feeling yet that the speaker of the poem is getting old and close to death? Do you need a third quatrain to reinforce the point? Well, you're going to get one anyway!

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