The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
This fourteen-line poem, which is divided into three distinct quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a couplet (two lines), is addressed to the poet’s lover and comments on the approach of old age in the speaker. As in all the Shakespearian sonnets, the voice is that of the poet. The lover has sometimes been interpreted as the unknown “Mr. W. H.” to whom the first quarto edition was dedicated, but Samuel Taylor Coleridge surmised that the lover must be a woman.
The poet opens by stating that his lover must behold him at the time of life corresponding to late autumn, when almost no leaves remain on the trees and the birds have flown south. The poet’s calling attention to his old age might seem incongruous, since many lovers might try to hide the fact from their companions. Yet, in this relationship, William Shakespeare not only is being forthright but also seems to be seeking the sympathy of his dear friend.
In the second quatrain, the image shifts from the time of year to the time of day. He chooses twilight, the period between sunset and darkness, to reflect his state. “Twi” originally meant “half,” so “half-light” signifies a period of diminished abilities and activities, again calling for the sympathy and understanding of the poet’s friend. The second half of the quatrain brings forth more forcibly the associations of darkness with death and emphasizes the immanence of that mortal state in the poet’s life.
The third quatrain moves from the world of seasons and time to the more restricted compass of natural phenomena—the way a fire burns itself to ashes and then is smothered by those ashes. As the magnitude of the image decreases, the force of its message concentrates, concluding with the very picture of a deathbed.
The concluding couplet sums up the purpose of Shakespeare’s revelation of his decreasing powers: to request that his friend love more strongly because of the short time left to the poet. Critics have been concerned with the word “leave” in the last line, since it might be thought to indicate that the lover is the one to depart. Some have even commented that “lose” might better convey the idea. Certainly the death of the poet would cause a separation to occur, however, and the lover would have to “leave” him.