Sonnet 97

Shakespeare Sonnet 97

HOw like a Winter hath my abſence beene
From thee, the pleaſure of the fleeting yeare?
What freezings haue I felt, what darke daies ſeene?
What old Decembers bareneſſe euery where?
And yet this time remou’d was ſommers time,
The teeming Autumne big with ritch increaſe,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widdowed wombes after their Lords deceaſe:
Yet this aboundant iſſue ſeem’d to me,
But hope of Orphans, and vn-fathered fruite,
For Sommer and his pleaſures waite on thee,
And thou away, the very birds are mute.
Or if they ſing, tis with ſo dull a cheere,
That leaues looke pale, dreading the Winters neere.

Sonnet 97 is the first of three sonnets using an extended seasonal metaphor, whose principal referent is the poet’s inner state. Its initial distancing (“my absence . . / From thee”) suggests the poet is away and only later does it become clear that it is the youth (“And thou away”). His separation from the youth is “like a Winter,” while the youth is acclaimed, “the pleasure of the fleeting yeare,” either he is that in which the quickly-passing year takes pleasure or that which the quickly-passing year proves as pleasure. The “freezings” the poet has suffered are the coldnesses of absence; the “dark daies” he has seen are moments of depression and melancholy. He everywhere sees about him the bareness (“barenesse” with a hint of ‘barrenness’) of “old Decembers,” “old,” because December at the year’s end is normally presented as old, but also most ‘familiar’ like the ‘old man.’

The shifts between the seasons now become complex, revolving around a double “time:” “this time remou’d” is the time of separation, which is like winter; yet it is also “sommers time,” not so much the time possessed by summer, but the time when summer is on the verge of giving birth as in her “tyme came’ (Luke 1.57; BB) or when Hermione was “something before her time, deliuer’d” (WT 2.2.25). Summer carries in her womb that which is conceived in the spring and given birth to as prolific harvest in the autumn (“teeming Autumne”). The floating modifier, “big with ritch increase,” either looks back to summer which is heavily pregnant (“big”) or to autumn which is large with ample yeild. 1 Summer is seen as “Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime:” “wanton,” because conceived in exuberant playing, while “burthen” (‘burden’ with a hint of ‘birthin’’) is that which is carried in summer’s womb. The foetus was commonly termed the “burthen” (compare (Jn. 3.1.89-90, “let wiues with childe /  Pray that their burthens may not fall this day,” or La Primaudaye in his Academie, who describes “the veines whereby the burthen is nourished . . may bee compared vnto plants”). 2 The fruit was sired by “prime” or spring. But spring has passed on; the sire is now dead, so that what is born is born after its sire’s death (“Like widdowed wombes after their Lords decease”). It is a posthumous birth, of the womb of a widowed summer.

To the poet the “aboundant issue” of this “time remou’d,” either its emotional outcome or its poetic outlay, seemed only that for which an orphan might hope (“hope of Orphans”) or “fruite” (both seasonal and foetal as in “fruite of thy wombe”), whose begetter had already passed on (“vn-fathered fruite”). (An orphan in 16th century England wasn’t necessarily a child, both of whose parents had died, but was generally one without a father – widows and orphans were linked.) Summer and its delights (“his pleasures”) have abandoned the poet and now attend on or to the absent youth (“waite on thee”). Where earlier the youth was “the pleasure of the fleeting yeare,” now summer and that which it has borne in pleasure, are absent to the poet who remains issueless and without song (“the very birds are mute”).

A little comfort, however, is offered in the couplet: if a voice were to ensue (“Or if they sing”), then it would be with so gloomy a countenance (“cheere”), that “leaues looke pale,” not sanguine, nearly lifeless and drained of colour, because of fear (“dreading the Winters neere”). The poet’s paucity of poetic output allows an allusion in the “pale” leaves to sheets of paper as yet scarcely written upon.

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97.1. Compare Sonnet 1.1, “Of fairest creatures we desire increase.”

97.2. de la Primaudaye, Academie (1594) 397.

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