Describe the poetic elements of Sonnet 73. What imagery and symbolism does Shakespeare use, and what is the central theme of the work?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is perhaps Shakespeare's best sonnet, technically speaking. What makes it unique is the display of metaphors. Each of the three stanzas contains two metaphors. The first in each case is a metaphor for the speaker's age, and the second is a metaphor for that metaphor.

In the first stanza the poet, presumably Shakespeare himself, compares his aging condition to 

That time of year...

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

And then he compares those barren boughs to

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

The sound of singing birds is simulated by the "S" sounds in "sweet" and "sang." It should be noted that the concept of the boughs shaking because of the cold is a poetic conceit. The boughs cannot not feel the cold but are shaking because of the wind. What is interesting is that they look as if they are shaking because of the cold. And they look as if they are shaking because of the cold because they are nearly naked. Shakespeare makes the preceding line move slowly, breaking it up with commas

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

so that the words "shake against the cold" will convey that image more effectively by contrast.

In the second stanza he returns to his aged appearance and mood. He compares them with 

The twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;

And then he compares the ensuing "black night" to

Death's second self that seals up all in rest.

The poet is equating death and night. It is a thought which must be familiar to his reader. Many of Shakespeare's metaphors and similes are characteristically familiar, homely, commonplace, unpretentious, and simple. That is one of Shakespeare's finest attributes as a poet. In Macbeth he has his protagonist compare sleep to "the death of each day's life." Everybody can understand that metaphor. Going to sleep is like dying, and waking up is like being reborn. In Hamlet he has the Prince compare humanity to a neglected garden:

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah, fie! 'tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. 

Everybody has seen such a garden by an abandoned house. The grass gets long and choked with weeds. This is "rank." Huge, ugly weeds spring up here and there. They are "gross." The rank vegetation represents most of the people in the world. The gross weeds represent people like Claudius and Polonius.

In the third stanza, Shakespeare compares his time of life to

the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

And then he compares those ashes to a death-bed.

The central theme of Sonnet 73 is summarized in the final couplet.

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

Shakespeare is expressing his appreciation for the fact that his paramour still continues to love him in spite of the fact that he is growing old. No doubt the person addressed in the poem continues to love him more or less the same as always. But the love seems "more strong" and more precious to the poet because he knows he is growing older, losing his vitality and whatever good looks he once possessed. 

In some of Shakespeare's sonnets he uses only one striking metaphor or simile, which stands out because of its placement and because it stands alone. For example, in Sonnet 29, which begins with 

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,

he breaks into his morbid reflections with these lines containing a commonplace but dazzling simile:

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;

The lark begins to take flight in one line and soars all the way up to heaven in the next. The lark's singing is simulated by all the "S" sounds in "arising," "sullen," "sings," "hymns," and "heaven's."

But in Sonnet 73, Shakespeare fills his poem with metaphors as if to offer a tiny sample of his unfathomed and inexhaustible creative prowess.