The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) did not invent the Petrarchan sonnet. It was perhaps first used by Dante (1265-1321) and then later by many of Dante’s contemporaries and imitators. But Petrarch’s excellence with the form — especially when celebrating his beloved Laura — made the form much more widely known, so that even into the present day, it’s often called The Petrarchan Sonnet or, more commonly, The Petrarchan.
The Petrarchan remains among the most perfect poetic structures yet invented.
Poetic structures and forms are a little like rules to a game. In this context, I think often about a former bartending partner and my friend, who when we both worked at a sports bar said about the sport of rugby: “It is a good game, but the rules are loose, and so rugby always feels a little disorganized to me.”
I think this makes a fair point — a point that applies to all rules and structures: good rules, whether for sports, board-games, card-games, puzzle-games, and so on, go a long way in determining how satisfying or unsatisfying the game is.
The same is true of poems.
Robert Frost, who at his best is a first-rate poet, described free-verse as “like playing tennis without a net.”
All formal structures are in a certain sense straightjackets. Some straightjackets are too loose. Other are too tight. Others are haphazard. Others are sloppy and pointless. Others are confusing because they’re outrageously arbitrary and so hard to understand and follow that, in the end, the effort isn’t worth the work.
The Petrarchan, however, is a near-perfect fit, and that is why it’s never gone out of date and never will. It consists of fourteen total lines, beginning with an opening octave — an initial passage of eight lines, rhyming abbaabba — followed by a sestet: six lines requiring only that each line have a rhyming mate. In addition to this separation of octave and sestet, there is almost always a subtle but dramatic shift in point-of-view, introduced by the sestet and carrying with it a kind of epiphany.
The Shakespearean sonnet, like The Petrarchan, is named after its most famous practitioner, but Shakespeare, also like Petrarch, was by no means the inventor: Spenser, Surrey, Sidney, Fletcher, Daniel, Drayton, Lodge, and many others had established the form decades and decades before Shakespeare.
The sonnet in general, always fourteen lines unless otherwise specified (i.e. “sixteen line sonnet“), can thus be divided into two main forms: the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet.
The primary difference between the Shakespearean form and the Petrarchan form is that the Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains rhyming abab,cdcd, efef, and concludes with a couplet: gg.
Shakespeare, however, frequently saw his sonnets in terms of the Italian division — by which I don’t mean the rhyme scheme but the dramatic shift between the octave and sestet — and Shakespeare clearly delighted writing sonnets in the spirit of both forms, almost certainly because they both have something different to offer, to writer and reader alike.
Sonnet 73 is an absolutely pristine and textbook example of the Shakespearean form:
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 ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fades 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,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceive, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Observe that the first four lines are one sentence, which has always struck me as strange — for two reasons: First, it’s an incomplete thought. Second, Shakespeare is notoriously good at constructing and connecting long clauses and making them into complete sentences. Which tells me beyond any doubt that Shakespeare wanted it to be this way: a thought unto itself.
He wanted those first four lines to pack all the power of a full sentence — a sentence that might very loosely be paraphrased this way:
“The time of year you see in me, when no or only a few leaves hang on trees that shake in the cold, and upon whose boughs the sweet birds recently sang.”
It is no trivial matter that Shakespeare makes this incomplete thought into one complete sentence.
Three quatrains, each with its own governing figure of decline, serve as incremental parts of reflection. Each quatrain parallels and reinforces the others with heartbreaking beauty and the delicacy of detail. Each describes the inexorable truth of the natural world’s mutability.
There is no double-syntax or uncertainty of feeling in “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet bird sang.” And yet it is my opinion that the position of this beautiful metaphor in relation to the rest of the lines combines to lift that passage and this entire poem to a level exalted.
Note also that these boughs are either themselves (by metaphoric transmogrification) the “cold bare ruined choirs,” which “shake against the cold” — “cold” used as a noun, in other words — or else “cold” used as an adjective modifying the bare ruined choirs themselves. I don’t think this is trivial or grammatical hair-splitting, either. There is in this line far too much suggestion of ruined cathedrals and churches and monasteries, and I say this because these places are (and especially were, in Shakespeare’s time) the primary places in which people traditionally sang. I’m one hundred percent convinced that this duel meaning is deliberate.
The dying year — which starts with autumn (“yellow leaves”) and then dips briefly into winter (“or none”) and then, cryptically, I’ve always thought, and intriguingly, shifts back to autumn (“or few”) — this dying year, I repeat, and the decline of day and the dying fire involving the russet colors of the autumnal season, russet and gold, it is all gathered into pure brevity, gaining force thereby: the perishability of the flesh, the ephemeral nature of all living things.
The second quatrain is more ambiguous than the first — in part, perhaps, because death is explicitly mentioned. But observe as well that death’s terrors are sweetly softened by such soothing comparisons with sleep — specifically, sleep “that seals up all in rest.” There is deep and comforting tranquility in this poem. There’s melancholy too, like autumn itself, but there is also peacefulness all throughout.
That line also very much recalls the similar line in Macbeth’s strange yet gentle passage:
“Come, sealing night,/ Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day” (III.ii.46-47).
It recalls to me also lines centuries later from the genius priest-poet Gerard Manly Hopkins, who understood Shakespeare as few others have understood him:
“All life death does end, and each day dies with sleep.”
The second quatrain in Sonnet 73 progresses from twilight to dark, and we as readers are permitted to regard that conclusion as either a consummation devoutly to be wished for, or else as the end of all the beauties and gentle pleasures and joys of the mortal world.
Yet it is the final quatrain that is the most dramatically dense and emotionally charged:
The once-brilliant fire has dimmed. Its ashes now serve to extinguish the very flame which, when those ashes were wood, has fled. Directly implied here is that the liberties and excesses of youth are precisely what serve to bring us, by the very excesses of youthful folly and inexperience, to our demise. We are thus in this sense, like the wood that fuels fire, self-executed.
This has always as well, for me, very obliquely echoed the exceptionally powerful and poetic lines from Ecclesiastes (11:9), a book with which Shakespeare was completely familiar:
“Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these you will be brought into judgment.”
The sense that youth, injudiciously and wantonly expended, brings about its own demise — contrasted, incidentally, in Sonnet 94 where Shakespeare writes, in metaphor, of those who “rightly do inherit heaven’s graces/And husband nature’s riches from expense” (note: “husband” is here a verb) — these are the ones who maintain their youth and beauty seemingly forever because they are by temperament “to temptation slow.”
At last, we come to the most troubling lines of Sonnet 73: the closing couplet. A number of astute readers and critics have observed that “To love that well” has two meanings, which is in my opinion unquestionably deliberate as well: either to treasure your own youth, or to love the poem’s own speaker, whose age and thoughts of death have been the subject of the entire poem.
Both meanings present perplexing problems of emotional complexity. If the beloved is being instructed to husband his own fiery youth and beauty, there is, then, the double pathos of his being instructed by the decay of the poet before him and of the poet’s making himself into a seemingly disinterested object lesson. In addition to which, this act of husbandry is crucially doomed, since youth is something “thou must leave ere long.”
In the case of the beloved being praised for the nobility of loving someone whom he is destined to soon lose, the poignancy is greatly increased, and the continued love, especially in the face of a ravaged lover, is quite heroic and beautiful and, in this reader’s opinion, absolutely beyond reproach.
But after having read this poem more times than I could ever quantify or calculate, I believe I now glimpse something even profounder at work overall in this perfect piece and its culminating couplet — something colossal going on in Shakespeare’s subtle and calibrated mind:
I see Shakespeare — who, as an aside, is among the profoundest and greatest of thinkers — expressing and capturing the deep risk of all mortal attachments here:
Shakespeare is showing us, in another flash of insight which must be worked for with the effort of attention before it fully yields up its most poignant meaning, that to avoid such attachments may indeed be safe, but safe as it may be, it is not to live life to the fullest — even if to love deeply means to expose oneself to the potential of the deepest possible kind of grief.
The more fundamental the connection, the more profound the emotional intimacy.
The more profound the emotional intimacy, the deeper the love.
The deeper the love, the more potential for grief — but also for more joy and authentic happiness and even goodness.
And that is what I think Sonnet 73 is largely about.