Death is a universal truth that is thematic in literatures of the world. Whether it be in the past or present, or found in literatures of the East or West, the topic of death, grief, and mourning is common because it is inevitable to the human experience. However, death may be considered an ever-present reality in earlier periods, not least in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, where death was constant and normalized. Therefore, without a doubt, literary legends such as Shakespeare were no strangers to the topic of death, as in his strikingly intense sonnets that often deal with high psychological and moral stakes.
As noted in the anthology, sonnets 18 to 126 are passionately focused on a beloved young man, developing a dominant motif of the transience and destructive power of time, countered only by the force of love.
In sonnet 73, Shakespeare incorporates three distinct, shifting images of nature that operate as a metaphor for life and death to further endorse the notion that love is strongest in the moments before an inevitable death.
In the first quatrain, Shakespeare incorporates the imagery of yellow leaves falling from a tree which suggests the “time of year” or the transition from autumn to winter. The speaker begins by identifying “that time of year,’ which specifies a particular moment, a period of time, or, more specifically, a season. Therefore, the word ‘that’ in the phrase “that time of year” holds implications of a shared knowledge between the speaker and the person whom he is addressing in the sonnet.
With this shared knowledge, there manifests an intimacy that would otherwise not be present without the use of the word “that.” The speaker illustrates the leaves as “yellow” which within itself is a traditional symbol of autumn.
The color “yellow” holds conflicting connotations but it is often associated with sunshine, joy, and happiness. Alternatively, a dull yellow may also connote to sickness or illness such as the yellow looking skin of an individual who is ill or decaying of old age. Furthermore, he describes that there are ‘none’ or ‘few’ of the yellow leaves that “hang” on the branches or “boughs” of the tree. The physical lack of leaves strongly represent an ending, however, the ambiguity of having ‘none’ or ‘few’ rather than one or the other also represents an inevitability as though regardless of how many leaves remain on the tree the speaker knows that they all will eventually fall in the same way that death is guaranteed. Continuously, the imagery of “boughs” that “shake against the cold.” A “bough” is considered to be one of the larger limbs of offshoots of a tree, a main or smaller branch (as of a vein or artery), a branch of a family, or of anything metaphorically referred to as a tree.
The tree is personified– taking on human characteristics because it possesses the capability of a bodily function, which is shivering, in response to the cold rather than simply saying a branch is swaying in the wind. The specific wording of shaking ‘against’ the cold denotes a struggle or rebellious action toward the cold weather. Generally, the colder season is associated with autumn but it also evokes old age and death so this imagery of autumn suggests that the speaker has lost a former youth or vibrancy. The yellowing of leaves and their subsequent “death” is a well known indication for the changing of seasons and the nature’s way of preparing for winter. Barely surviving, the remaining yellow leaves on the branches are struggling to hold on in the face of old age, or in this case, the cold. Nonetheless, by illustrating the falling yellow leaves from the branches of a tree, the speaker reveals a clear transition of youth to old age; ultimately, representing the passing of time, the cycle of life, or a metaphorical state that the speaker is in before his death.
In the second quatrain, Shakespeare incorporates the imagery of day and night but is particularly interested in twilight to convey the sense of death as sleep. The antecedent of the metaphorical “black night” is the “twilight of such day” which is a faint light that remains after sunset and right before darkness. Metaphor is used as the speaker directly compares himself to a “twilight” when he tells his beloved that they see “in [him]” the “twilight of such day.” A twilight is the time of day were the sun is not visible yet there remains a faint of light just before it is disrupted by darkness. Shakespeare