Sonnet 73

What effect does love have in the face of death? Famous poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) attempts to answer this question in his famous "Sonnet 73" (1609). Describing the passage of time using a series of nature metaphors, the speaker positions death as a natural but mournful aspect of life. The final couplet in "Sonnet 73" reveals the poem's meaning and the speaker's ultimate argument about love and death. 

Sonnet 73 Sonnet 73

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Table of contents

    Sonnet 73 at a Glance

    Written By

    William Shakespeare


    1609, in a quarto entitled Shake-speare's Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted.


    Shakespearean or English sonnet


    Iambic Pentameter

    Rhyme Scheme


    Poetic Devices






    Frequently noted imagery

    Yellow leaves

    Shake against the cold

    Bare ruined choirs

    Sweet birds sang

    Sunset fading in the west

    Black night takes away

    Glowing of fire

    Ashes of youth


    Pensive, tender, mournful

    Key themes

    The inescapable passage of time and death

    The nature of love


    Because time marches on and death grows inevitably closer, the speaker argues that his beloved needs to make the most of the time they have left and love strongly.

     Sonnet 73, William Shakespeare, StudySmarterShakespeare is now one of the most-known poets and playwrights in not just his own time period but in the history of English literature, pixabay.

    Sonnet 73 Text

    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 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 perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

    To love that well which thou must leave ere long."

    Sonnet 73 Summary

    "Sonnet 73" is broken up into three quatrains, each dominated by its own metaphor, and ending with a heroic couplet. The speaker is addressing "Fair Youth," the unnamed young man that most of Shakespeare's 126 sonnets are addressed to. The speaker is reflecting on his old age and his inevitable death. He first compares himself to a tree in Autumn, with yellow leaves and bare spots clinging to the branches as they're shaken by the cold Fall air. Where birds once sang, the branches are deserted like the ruins where choirs would sing in now-ruined churches. He then compares his age to a sunset fading into the night, where sleep seals up all light. Finally, the metaphor in the last quatrain compares the speaker to a fire burning out. The logs of youth have turned to ash, consumed by the very fire that made it burn so brightly. In the final couplet, the speaker implores the Fair Youth to love him more deeply because he won't be alive for much longer.

    Heroic Couplet: two lines of poetry that contain end rhyme, are the same length, and are typically closed (with punctuation at the end of each line). Heroic couplets show a unity of thought and emphasizes importance.

    The vast majority of the sonnets, Sonnets 1-126, address an unnamed man referred to as the "Fair Youth." The speaker has an intimate relationship with the Fair Youth, at first beseeching him to have children so his legacy will live on and later documenting the two men's developing relationship.

    Some scholars have argued that the relationship is homoerotic in nature given the affection and intimacy between the two men. Others claim that a homosexual reading of the sonnets is too contemporary given that Shakespeare's society seemed unfazed by the men's relationship.

    Either way, the Fair Youth is the character being addressed in "Sonnet 73." This sonnet touches on themes of love while focusing primarily on the passage of time and death.

    Sonnet 73, Autumn, StudySmarterThe speaker compares the end of his life to a tree with yellow leaves in Autumn to show that time and life are slipping away, pexels

    Sonnet 73 Literary Devices

    "Sonnet 73" employs metaphor, imagery, symbolism, and apostrophe to present the central themes of time and death. The speaker never directly says his life is ending, but he uses figurative language to make his inevitable demise very apparent.

    Metaphor in "Sonnet 73"

    There are three core metaphors used in "Sonnet 73," one in each of the quatrains. The metaphors are used to depict the speaker's understanding of death. As the metaphors evolve, so too does the speaker's understanding of the nature of death.

    Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as

    Metaphor in quatrain one

    In the first quatrain, metaphor compares the speaker's late stage in life to a tree losing its leaves in the winter:

    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." (1-4)

    If Spring is often associated with birth, growth, and vitality, then Autumn is associated with loss of life and decay. The leaves lose all of their green color and fall to the ground, leaving the trees dormant and barren for the winter. Where birds once sang late into the summer nights, now the branches are bare like "ruin'd choirs" (4) in destroyed churches.

    The speaker can feel his youthfulness and life ebbing away like the leaves that fall off the tree. Interestingly, leaves come back every single year. And instead of being stunted by the apparent loss in the fall, trees grow taller and healthier each year. Is the speaker saying that death is merely a cycle of regeneration?

    Metaphor in quatrain two

    In the second quatrain, the metaphor shifts, comparing life and death to the loss of light at dusk:

    In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

    As after sunset fadeth in the west," (5-6)

    The light of day is overtaken by darkness as the sun sets. The light is the speaker's life and the darkness is the vast nothingness of death. Again, though, the metaphor of a day is cyclical: every night the sun sets, but every morning it comes back up. Unlike the tree metaphor, days are not physically alive nor are they constantly growing in their dormancy. As the poem progresses, the speaker seems to realize the finality of death. How does the final metaphor evolve?

     Sonnet 73, Sunset, StudySmarterThe speaker compares old age to dusk, as the light of life is replaced with the darkness of death, unsplash

    Metaphor in quatrain three

    In the third and final quatrain, the central metaphor compares life and death to a fire that is burning out:

    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." (9-12)

    The fire is burning to ashes, the ashes acting as a symbol of his past vitality giving way to death. The very life that sustained him has been consumed by his youth and stripped away. This metaphor most importantly breaks the cyclical nature that the speaker had been implying with the both the trees and the dusk. Ashes cannot sustain more fire, they are simply a reminder of what once had been. In this metaphor the speaker finally realizes the finality of death.

    Imagery and Symbolism in "Sonnet 73"

    "Sonnet 73" relies on visual imagery to depict how the speaker understands death. Visual imagery is appropriate because many of the signs of aging are physical, like wrinkles and sagging skin. The speaker doesn't describe human beings, though, and instead uses imagery to describe the trees, twilight, and fire in the metaphors, which also function as symbols in the poem.

    Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses

    Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.

    The passage of time symbols

    Consider the tree in fall that is defined by its yellow leaves, shaking boughs, and "bare ruin'd choir" (4). The imagery depicts life right on the cusp of death, as things are breaking down and the vibrancy has long since passed. In literature, trees often stand as symbols for life and growth. The physical degradation of the tree as it enters winter reflects the speaker's body degrading as death approaches.

    The setting sun is also a symbol for the passage of time. Because humans begin their day at sunrise and end their day at dusk, our very lives are defined by the position of the sun in the sky. The setting sun in the second metaphor is symbolic of the passage of time and nearing the end of human life.

    Darkness and loss symbols

    The imagery in the second metaphor, with the twilight and the sunset fading into black night, also functions as a symbol for darkness. Light typically functions as a symbol for life and hope, while darkness is a symbol for death and the unknown. If read symbolically, the speaker is referring to death stripping away his life and sealing him into the unknown for all eternity.

    Finally, the third quatrain uses imagery to present the fire which is burning itself out. The fire is still glowing, but it is burning on "the ashes of his youth" (10) and it will soon be consumed. Fires are often symbols of eternity and resurrection because they can be kept going forever if given enough material to consume. The speaker's fire, however, has nothing to sustain itself but the ashes of its past. All of its kindling has already been used and it has nothing left to burn, as the speaker's life has nothing left. Like the fire, the speaker's vitality is languishing as it fades away into death.

    Sonnet 73, ashes, StudySmarterThe speaker compares his life to a fire which has burned down to the ashes, unsplash

    Personification and Alliteration in "Sonnet 73"

    The speaker uses personification to present night and in extension death as an antagonist, not just something that happens to people but a force which actively works against humanity. He says,

    Which by and by black night doth take away,

    Death's second self, that seals up all in rest." (7-8)

    Death is a personified figure which has not just one but two faces. Its second identity, night, physically takes away light, stripping the world of brightness and hope. Then, after the mortal world has lost its sense of light and happiness, death and night seal up all of humanity in an eternal rest, where humans are forever kept in darkness. So death isn't just a passive fact of life as presented in the tree metaphor. Here, it is a vindictive manipulator that steals human happiness.

    Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

    This passage is also the most prominent example of alliteration in the poem. Consider the repetition of the "B" sound in "by and by black" (7) and the "S" sound in "second self, that seals" (8). Nowhere else in the poem does the speaker personify death as a physical, active rival of humanity. But here, the alliteration and personification work together to show how little control humans have over life when death is all-powerful and merciless.

    Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words

    Read the poem aloud. Do you notice any other poetic devices that effect how the poem sounds rather than what it says?

    Sonnet 73 Meaning

    Trying to stop time or run from death is impossible. Just like trees must shed their leaves in Autumn in preparation for winter, the day must yield to night, and even the hottest fires eventually burn out when there's nothing left, human lives eventually give way to death.

    But just because it happens to everybody doesn't mean the speaker is okay with it. He still views night as a thief which steals light from the day and death as a thief which steals vitality from life. Nonetheless, the speaker realizes he must accept his fate even if he isn't content with it.

    The meaning of the poem can be found in the way the last couplet handles the inevitability of death: Because time marches on and death grows inevitably closer, the speaker argues that he and his beloved need to make the most of the time they have left and love strongly.

    Sonnet 73, time, StudySmarterThe speaker understands that the passage of time is unavoidable, and wants to make use of the time he has left, pixabay.

    Sonnet 73 Tone

    The tone of "Sonnet 73" is pensive, tender, and mournful. The speaker uses gentle nature imagery to contemplate death as a natural process of life. He talks about trees, twilight, and fire, all ambivalent, dynamic reminders of both life and death. Instead of presenting death as a violent force, he compares it to the gentle decay of natural things that give way to something else. That doesn't mean it is without its sorrow. The poem is still distinctly mournful, as the speaker uses desolate imagery like barren trees, ashes, and darkness.

    The poem is also pensive because the speaker considers death, not just in regards to how it will effect him, but also in how it will impact his beloved. He knows the effects of his death will be felt by all of those close to him, and that aging is a communal experience. Importantly, the speaker also suggests a way to combat the anxiety and finality of death. If he and his beloved love as strongly as they can now, the time he has left will be even more meaningful and fulfilling.

    Sonnet 73 Themes

    The major themes in "Sonnet 73" examine the tension between death and love.

    The inescapable passage of time and death

    Most of the poem is about death and the passage of time. In fact, twelve out of the fourteen lines are dedicated to the speaker coming to terms with his own ultimate demise. He does so by depicting how everything in nature goes through periods of loss and death. Trees, sunlight, and fires all do it. Nothing in nature thrives at full force forever, and everything succumbs to the effects of time. At the end of the poem, the speaker is finally able to accept that his death is a natural part of life. Like everything in nature, he is controlled by time.

    The nature of love

    One thing time doesn't control, though, is love. The final couplet in the poem is so important because it introduces the speaker's only thread of hope in the face of death: the strength of love. The speaker feels rejuvenated by his beloved's passion. He says,

    This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

    To love that well which thou must leave ere long." (13-14)

    And if the two love one another more strongly because death is inevitable, then their love becomes that much more meaningful and powerful. Death can take everything away from the speaker, can strip his life away like leaves on an Autumn tree, light from the night sky, and ashes burning down low. But it can't take away the meaning and power of love.

    How might the poem change if the Fair Youth was an active character in the poem and responded to the speaker? What do you think a young man might say in response to the speaker's observations about age?

    Sonnet 73 - Key takeaways

    • "Sonnet 73" was written by William Shakespeare and published in 1609.
    • "Sonnet 73" expresses how death can't be avoided, but that life should be embraced and valued, no matter how little is left.
    • Death is a natural process and the speaker requests that his beloved make use of the time they have left and love strongly.
    • The mood of this sonnet is pensive, tender, and mournful.
    • The form and structure of this sonnet follows the traditional form of an English sonnet. It is 14 lines long, organized into 3 quatrains and one couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, and written in iambic pentameter.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sonnet 73

    What is the tone of "Sonnet 73"?

    The tone of "Sonnet 73" is pensive, tender, and mournful.

    What does "Sonnet 73" say about love?

    "Sonnet 73" says that love is everlasting but can not stop the natural process of death.

    What lesson does William Shakespeare offer to the addressee of "Sonnet 73"?

    In "Sonnet 73" Shakespeare advises the addressee to take advantage of time, and to love deeply, before death comes. 

    What is the mood of "Sonnet 73"?

    The mood of "Sonnet 73" is sorrowful and soft.

    What does "Sonnet 73" mean? 

    "Sonnet 73" expresses how death can't be avoided but that life should be embraced, no matter how little is left. 

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    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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