THat time of yeeare thou maiſt in me behold,
When yellow leaues, or none, or fewe doe hange
Vpon thoſe boughes which ſhake againſt the could,
Bare rn’wd quiers, where late the ſweet birds ſang. ruin’d
In me thou ſeeſt the twi-light of ſuch day,
As after Sun-ſet fadeth in the Weſt,
Which by and by blacke night doth take away,
Deaths ſecond ſelfe that ſeals vp all in reſt.
In me thou ſeeſt the glowing of ſuch fire,
That on the aſhes of his youth doth lye,
As the death bed, whereon it muſt expire,
Conſum’d with that which it was nurriſht by.
This thou perceu’ſt, which makes thy loue more ſtrong,
To loue that well, which thou muſt leaue ere long.
Sonnet 73 is one of the more rhetorically exact of the sequence: each quatrain advances its argument a stage and each quatrain’s “In me” is balanced against the couplet’s “thou.” Its first metaphor, identifying a stage of life with a time of year, recalls Ovid’s correlating a human lifespan with the year’s seasons, in Golding’s words: “Seest thou not how that the yeere as representing playne / The age of man, departes itself in quarters fowre.” 1 The poet sees himself, not beyond death as in the preceding and subsequent sonnets, but on the cusp of old age. The “behold” of the inverted opening line is sustained in “seest” (lines 4 and 9) and “perceu’st” (line 13). “When yellow leaues, or none, or few” is a series of refining qualifiers; “yellow leaues” are those of autumn or of mature years (compare Mac. 5.3.22-3, “I had liu’d long enough: my way of life / Is falne into the Seare, the yellow leafe”); “or none” implies winter and, “or few,” the moment between autumn and winter. They “hang / Vpon those boughes,” an enjambment where “hang” hangs before the voice picks up “Vpon.” The boughs “shake against the cold,” quiver in the wind as a human might shiver. “Bare rn’wd quiers” might initially call to mind a group of choristers singing (‘quier’ and ‘quire’ were the original spellings of ‘choir’), 2 but more precisely pictures the branches as broken-down choir stalls. (Delapidated churches, unrepaired since the Reformation, were a concern of Shakespeare’s day and their reedification and dedication much debated.) Finally “quiers” or ‘quires’ were bundles of leaves collected into a book, evoking the earlier “yellow leaues.” The “boughes” are “Bare,” vacant and voiceless now, although once (“late”) sweet-sounding birds sang there.
The second quatrain focusses the first: the poet’s age is identified as the moment after evening and before night (“In me thou seest the twi-light of such day”), after the sun has sunk “in the West, / Which by and by blacke night doth take away.” The moment is sudden (“by and by”), while “black night” is both dark and malevolent. Night is “Deaths second selfe,” a standard identification as in Hamlet’s “To dye, to sleepe” and “sleepe of death” (3.1.59 & 66). Night “seals vp all in rest;” “seals” conjures up the sealing of a casket, or a last will and testament being sealed, or homonymically ‘seeled,’ meaning ‘blinded’ or ‘darkened’ from the practice of stitching together the eyelids of a hawk to hoodwink and train it (compare Mac. 3.2.46, “Come, seeling Night”).
The final conceit of fire (“In me thou seest the glowing of such fire”) describes the top ashes, the product of that which once fueled the fire, covering and starving the underlying fire of oxygen, so that they extinguish or ‘consume’ it. Applied to the poet, the years expended in his youth, which produced his present state, now threaten to suppress and extinguish his life. The bed of ashes is like a death bed; the fire of youth must go out (“must expire”) or breath out its last (ex + spiro = breath + out). The paradoxical, “Consum’d with that which it was nurrisht by,” conflates two Ovidian echoes: the image of time that devours “all things” and does “leysurely by lingring death consume them” and the paradox, evident also in Sonnet 1.6, “Feed’st thy lights flame with selfe substantiall fewell,” which is a rendering of Ovid’s description of the youth Narcissus’ character, that he ‘burns, fueled by what he sees,’ in Golding, “He is the flame that settes on fire, and thing that burneth tooe.” 3
The couplet directs the poet’s self-preoccupation outward: “This thou perceu’st;” “this” is either the sonnet itself or its argument, the poet’s ageing. Looking upon it, the youth will find his love strengthened (“makes thy loue more strong”), so that he may “loue that well,” where “that” is either the poet’s life, or his love for the youth, or even the friend’s youthfulness. Any of the three the friend “must leaue ere long,” must soon forsake (with a quibbling echo of line 2’s departed “leaues”).
73.1. Golding 15.221-22; see Ovid, Met. 15.199-200, “Quid? non in species succedere quattuor annum / adspicis, aetatis peragentem imitamina nostrae?”
73.2. Compare Ven. 840, “still the quier of ecchoes answer so.” The spelling ‘choir’ was a late 17th century affectation.
73.3. Golding 15.260; see Ovid, Met. 15.236, “paulatim lenta consumitis omnia morte.” Golding 3.430; see Ovid, Met. 3.536, “quod videt, uritur illo.”