The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) did not invent the Petrarchan sonnet, which is also known as the Italian sonnet. It was first used by Dante (1265-1321) and then later by many of Dante’s contemporaries.
Petrarch’s excellence with the form, however, especially when celebrating his beloved Laura, made the Italian sonnet more widely known, so that even into the present day, it’s called The Petrarchan Sonnet or, more commonly, The Petrarchan.
The Petrarchan remains among the most perfect poetic structures yet invented.
In poetry form and structure function rather like rules to a game. It’s in this context that I think of a former bartending partner and friend of mine, who when we worked together at a sports bar, years ago, one Sunday afternoon said to me, in response to my question: “Rugby’s a good game, and I like playing it, but the rules are loose, and so whenever I watch rugby it always seems a little disorganized.”
I think this makes a fair point — not primarily about rugby, but about order, rules, and structure in general:
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. So, too, of poems.
Robert Frost, who at his best is a first-rate poet, once described free-verse as “playing tennis without a net.”
All formal structures are in a 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 ultimately arbitrary to the point of capricious and therefore so hard to understand and follow that, in the end, the effort isn’t worth it.
The Petrarchan, however, is a perfect fit.
This is in my opinion why it’s never gone out of date and never will.
The Petrarchan sonnet 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 the separation of octave and sestet, there’s almost always a subtle but dramatic shift in point-of-view, which is introduced by the sestet and carries with it a kind of epiphany.
As Petrarch is to the Italian sonnet, so Shakespeare is to the English sonnet — and for the same reasons.
Shakespeare did not invent the Shakespearean sonnet — Spenser, Surrey, Sidney, Fletcher, Daniel, Drayton, Lodge, and many others had established the form decades before Shakespeare — and the English sonnet has become known as the Shakespearean sonnet because of Shakespeare’s superior skill with the form.
All sonnets by definition have fourteen lines unless otherwise specified (i.e. “sixteen-line sonnet” or “double-sonnet“) and generally speaking can be divided into these two main forms: the Italian-Petrarchan sonnet and the English-Shakespearean sonnet.
The primary difference between the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan is this: 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. Shakespeare clearly delighted writing sonnets in the spirit of both forms, and this is surely because they each offer up something different — for writer and reader alike.
Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 is an absolutely pristine example of the Shakespearean form seamlessly sewn together with the dramatic shift that characterizes every good Petrarchan:
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 deathbed 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 first that the opening four lines are one sentence — they end with a period — which has always struck me as significantly strange since those first four lines do not actually form one completed sentence.
The first four lines are an incomplete thought.
Shakespeare’s stylistic skill and literary virtuosity are second to no writer’s in human history. His ability to sustain long clauses and connect these clauses and make them into perfect complete sentences tells us, therefore, beyond any doubt, that Shakespeare intended for his opening lines to be this way: a deliberately written incomplete sentence which is yet a thought unto itself.
He wanted those first four lines to pack all the power of a full sentence — even though the sentence is incomplete — a sentence that might loosely be paraphrased this way:
“The time of year you see in me, when bare trees shake in the cold and upon whose boughs, not long ago, the sweet birds of summer sang their hearts out.”
To become a complete sentence, the poem would’ve had to start with the word It’s — or some similar equivalent.
I do not consider it a trivial matter that Shakespeare makes this incomplete thought into a complete sentence.
Three total 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 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 staggering metaphor in relation to the rest of the lines around it combine 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 (imagine a colon after the word “cold” — … upon those boughs which shake against the cold: bare, ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang….) — or else “cold” used as one of two adjectives separated by a comma (cold, bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang….) modifying the ruined choirs themselves, and as the poem in fact stands written.
I don’t think this is a trivial matter, either. Neither do I think it’s accidental nor grammatical hair-splitting.
There are in these lines too much suggestion of ruined cathedrals and churches and monasteries — a fact of great interest because these places are (and especially were, in Shakespeare’s time) the primary places in which people traditionally sang. I’m certain this duel meaning is also deliberate.
The dying year starts with autumn (“yellow leaves”) and then dips into winter (“or none”) and then, cryptically, I’ve always thought, and intriguingly, shifts back to autumn (“or few”) — or perhaps here Shakespeare is referring to the few leaves which, clinging like death, linger upon the trees all throughout the winter.
This metaphor gives way to the decline of day and then the dying fire, all perfectly composed and perfectly separate metaphors — yet synthesized into an overwhelming whole involving the russet colors of the autumnal season, russet and gold, which is gathered into pure brevity and concision, and accumulating tidal 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: sleep “that seals up all in rest.” There is deep and comforting tranquility in this poem. There’s finality and melancholy too, like autumn itself, but there’s peacefulness all throughout as well.
The phrase “seals up all in rest” may also recall a similar line in Macbeth, and Macbeth’s strange and strangely gentle, powerful, poetic passage:
Come, sealing night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.
— Macbeth, III.ii.46-47
It reminds me also of lines, written centuries later, by 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.”
Here in sonnet 73 the second quatrain 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 as the end of all the beauties and gentle pleasures and joys of youth and the mortal world.
But the final quatrain is the passage most dramatically dense and emotionally charged — the Petrarchan-like shift:
The once-brilliant fire has dimmed. Its ashes now serve to extinguish the very flame which when those ashes were wood has now 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 in this sense, like the wood that fuels fire, self-executed.
This has always as well for me very obliquely echoed the 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 word “judgement” here refers to the fact that the excesses of our youth, when extreme in their excessiveness, can come back upon us.)
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” (“husband” here used as a verb) — these are those people 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 good commentators have observed “To love that well” has two meanings — the word “that” can refer to two different things — 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 of those meanings, however, 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 radically 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.
And yet though I do think both these meanings are deliberately intended and both important, I glimpse now — only now — after having read this poem more times than I could ever quantify or calculate, something even deeper at work in the body of this poem and its culminating couplet: something colossal going on inside Shakespeare’s subtle, calibrated mind:
I see Shakespeare — who is among the profoundest of thinkers in all the world’s history — expressing and capturing the deep risk of all mortal attachments here:
Shakespeare is showing us, in another flash of insight which must be worked at with the effort of attention before it fully yields its most poignant meaning, that to avoid such attachments may indeed be safe, but safe as it may be, it is not to have lived 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 too — happiness and even goodness.
And that, in the final analysis, is what I think sonnet 73 is all about.