An autumn sonnet for a winter night

I hope to get back to Edgar soon, but in the meantime, a brief post occasioned by my preparing to teach some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In particular, I found myself thinking about the first four lines of sonnet 78:

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. (lines 1-4, my emphasis)

Once, I read a novel in which a character, looking out a window at an autumn day, recited to herself, “When yellow leaves, or few, or none do hang…” And that brought me up short, not so much because the words in the second line were reversed, but because of what that reversal suddenly made clear to me about how the line works in unexpected ways. The version of the line from the novel is a reasonable linear progression, as the leaves flutter from the trees day after day: from few to none. But the sonnet actually conjures up separate images, disparate flashes of autumn: no single tree can go from complete bareness back to having a few leaves on its branches. The poem presents us with absolute starkness, in “none” – and then backs away from it, tempers it with “few,” as though afraid to go quite that far.

And then there’s the bite of the closing couplet, which is to my mind equally surprising:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long. (lines 13-14, my emphasis)

We don’t get “lose,” which is what we might expect after the depiction of the trees losing their leaves, or the other images in the middle of the poem: the twilight sky losing its light, the fire losing its strength, all natural processes of inevitable decline. Instead of “thou must lose” (in other words, “I must die”), we get “thou must leave,” which short-circuits those natural processes entirely. The ending of the love described here isn’t an unavoidable outcome, but a decision that could be made at any moment by the sonnet’s addressee. The modal verb “must” tries to coerce us into seeing this separation as something as inevitable as death, but “leave” contradicts that force. And how “strong” could such love truly be, if the addressee could choose to leave it behind? A note of uncertainty, even perhaps capriciousness, sneaks into the sonnet by way of that punning little word, as we follow the poem from leaves to leaving.


2 responses to “An autumn sonnet for a winter night

  1. I love this post! Thanks for the close reading and reflection. Your reaction to “must leave” was mine at first. But then I wondered, could “must leave” refer to death and the inevitability of mortality?

    • It certainly could! Whose death, though? “Thou must leave” would seem to suggest the death of the addressee, but the rest of the poem implies the death of the speaker, given the insistence on his age. I guess that’s why I don’t read it that way: it would be a sudden shift – but not an impossible one.

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