Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem, a sonnet, consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. The form, which was created by Petrarch, an Italian poet of the fourteenth century, usually consisted of eight lines sketching a situation (octave) and six lines applying it (sestet). The form was modified by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey. They and other poets created the English sonnet, which consists of three quatrains followed by a couplet, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, gg. In this form, adopted by Shakespeare and frequently called by his name, the couplet summarizes the theme.

Shakespeare’s sonnets range over many topics, including the beauty of a young man, the desirability of his marriage, a love triangle, a dark lady, and several philosophical and moral concerns. In addition to their poetic power, they remain a unique source of biographical speculation.

Sonnet 73 contains three distinct metaphors for the poet’s progressive aging. The first of these is the implied comparison between his state and the time of year when a few yellow leaves, or none at all, remain on boughs shaking in the cold winds, deserted by the birds that usually inhabit them. One might be tempted to compare this directly with graying and loss of hair, but it is more probably to be taken generally as a reference to the aging process. William Empson has pointed out manifold connotations of the “bare ruined choirs” in his Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), evoking images of ruined monastery choir stalls made of wood and...

(The entire section is 633 words.)