Metaphors for Death in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 73: That Time of Year Thou Mayest in Me Behold"

William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 73: That Time of Year Thou Mayest in Me Behold" is a sonnet that examines the fears and anxieties that surround growing old and dying -- a topic that resonates within us all. Shakespeare's use of metaphor to illustrate decay and passing are striking, and sets a somber tone throughout. He uses the season of Fall, the coming of night, and the burning out of a flame as metaphors for old age and death, and then uses the last two lines to suggest that we should love and cherish life while we can.

The first four lines of the sonnet reflect the changing of seasons, and the oncoming of Fall:

That time of year thou mayest 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.

The season of Fall has often been used as a metaphor for the passing of time. The seasons of Spring and Summer -- the time of blooming flowers, vibrant colors, and long, hot days -- are gone. Fall is the season in which all that has bloomed has withered, and turned gray and yellow. Shakespeare could not have started this melancholy sonnet with a better metaphor.

Shakespeare uses lines five through eight of the sonnet to describe the closing of a day, and the onset of night:

In me thou seest 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.

Like the season of Fall, the twilight of a day is a metaphor for the passing of time. Each new day can be seen as a life itself. Each morning and afternoon -- when the day is young -- is a life full of possibilities and opportunities. Then twilight approaches, and the day is done, only to be followed by sleep -- or as Shakespeare calls it, "Death's second self".

Lines nine through twelve describe the dying out of a flame -- the final extinguishing of a light:

In me thou seest 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 final metaphor is of death, and a reminder that all things must end. Shakespeare compares a flame dancing on the "ashes of his youth" to that of a person lying on his deathbed, where both "must expire".

In this sonnet, Shakespeare uses metaphor to create a vivid image in the reader's mind of the passage of time, old age, and death by describing the Fall season, the end of a day, and the burning out of a flame. These twelve lines of the sonnet have a depressing and inevitable tone to them, leaving the reader with a sense of fatalism, and are starkly contrasted by the last two lines, which suggest that we live the life we have to the fullest:

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong.
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

By Matthew R. King


Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 73: That Time of Year Thou Mayest in Me Behold". Writing About Literature, 8th ed. Ed. Roberts, Edgar V. 329.


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