Explication Essay On Sonnet 73 Modern



Sonnet 73

Sonnet 73 in the 1609 Quarto

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 ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st 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.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

—William Shakespeare[1]

Sonnet 73, one of the most famous of William Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, focuses upon the theme of old age, with each of the three quatrains encompassing a metaphor. The sonnet is pensive in tone, and although it is written to a young friend (See: Fair Youth), it is wholly introspective until the final couplet, which finally turns to the person who is addressed (the "thou" in line one).

Joseph Kau suggests that Samuel Daniel had a fair amount of influence on this sonnet and that Shakespeare's immediate source of the impresa, or motto, "Qua me alit me extinguit" came from Geoffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblems (London, 1586)[2]

Analysis and synopsis[edit]

Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 mainly focuses on the use of metaphor to aid his audience in thoroughly understanding the meaning of each of the three quatrains. Richard B. Hovey proposes that "in Sonnet 73 the poet-narrator compares his state with three things: autumn, the passing of day, and the burning out of a fire. To each of these comparisons Shakespeare devotes a quatrain, a quatrain which develops a metaphor".[3] Therefore, although believed to be one of Shakespeare's well-known sonnets, Sonnet 73 has had numerous comments, with different perspectives on its significance, as well as its addressee.

Barbara Estermann discusses William Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 in relation to the beginning of the Renaissance. She argues that the speaker of Sonnet 73 is comparing himself to the universe through his transition from "the physical act of aging to his final act of dying, and then to his death".[4] Esterman clarifies that throughout the three quatrains of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, the speaker "demonstrates man's relationship to the cosmos and the parallel properties which ultimately reveal his humanity and his link to his to the universe. Shakespeare thus compares the fading of his youth through the three elements of the universe: the fading of life, the fading of the light, and the dying of the fire".[5]

Sonnet 73 mainly focuses on the theme of old age and its effect on human beings. Throughout this sonnet, Shakespeare's intent is to allow his audience to observe the consequences and outcomes of old age. To properly get his point across to his readers, Shakespeare uses a variety of metaphors throughout the three quatrains to help his audience distinguish what he understands to be old age. As a result, throughout the entire sonnet the tone of his voice is in some sense negative and cold, because the thought of old age which results in death is rarely enjoyed and becomes a burden on the lives of each individual. This sonnet addresses the poet's lover, who is believed to be a man. Throughout the poem, the poet tries to explain to his lover the difficulty of old age. Shakespeare informs his audience that old age and death both share an inevitable relationship, which each individual must experience, at one point in their lifetime. He uses the metaphor of the season of fall when he refers to the "yellow leaves", before he emphasizes the death of winter, which is recognized, when he begins to talk about the "cold". Hence, in this sonnet, Shakespeare's use of metaphor puts an emphasis on the notion of death and old age.

The initial quatrain of Sonnet 73 is neatly recapitulated by Seymour-Smith: "a highly compressed metaphor in which Shakespeare visualizes the ruined arches of churches, the memory of singing voices still echoing in them, and compares this with the naked boughs of early winter with which he identifies himself"[6] The poet perceives that death occurs that "time of year" when it is dark, cold and gloomy; the time after the "yellow leaves" have disappeared, and the birds have stopped singing and have left their branches, their place of residence. Throughout the first quatrain, Shakespeare reveals that his lover is aging through his eyes comparing him to a tree without any leaves, "none, or few do hang." As a result, his lover's body shivers, portraying that he has lost his youth seeing as his body can no longer take the cold.

In the second quatrain, Shakespeare focuses on the "twilight of such day" as death approaches throughout the nighttime. Barbara Estermann states that, "he is concerned with the change of light, from twilight to sunset to black night, revealing the last hours of life".[7] Thus he believes that as the sunset fades, the dark night "doth take away" his life, which he will not be able to regain, after the "black night". As a result, as the night approaches the individual's youth begins to fade away and his old age leads him to the path of death.

Carl D. Atkins insinuates that the final quatrain of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 is the final stage in which youth disappears forever. "As the fire goes out when the wood which has been feeding it is consumed, so is life extinguished when the strength of youth is past".[8] He compares the burning fire that slowly goes out to the passing away of life, as old age prevails youth. Shakespeare is concerned with the reality of death, "the fading out of life's energy".[9] He realizes that what he has "nourished" but must now "expire". "The ashes of his youth doth lie" –the ashes of his youth burn brightly, as he recognizes that what brightened up his youth is devoured by the fire burning away his old age. As a result, Shakespeare informs his audience that we must "love more strongly", because in the end, we are going to leave it all behind and respond to death.


Sonnet 73 is an English or Shakespearean sonnet. The English sonnet has three quatrains, followed by a final rhyming couplet. It follows the typical rhyme scheme of the form, abab cdcd efef gg and is composed in iambic pentameter, a type of poetic metre based on five pairs of metrically weak/strong syllabic positions. The second line exemplifies a regular iambic pentameter:

× / × / × / × / × / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang (73.2)
/ = ictus, a metrically strong syllabic position. × = nonictus.

Structure and metaphors[edit]

The organization of the poem serves many roles in the overall effectiveness of the poem. Yet, one of the major roles implied by this scheme revolved around ending each quatrain with a complete phrase. Given the rhyme scheme of every other line within the quatrain, as an audience we are to infer a statement is being made by the end of every four lines. Further, when shifted toward the next four lines, a shift in the overall thought process is being made by the author.

If Shakespeare's use of a complete phrase within the rhyme scheme implied a statement then the use of a consistent metaphor at the end of each quatrain showed both the author's acknowledgement of his own mortality and a cynical view on aging. This view on aging is interconnected with the inverse introduction of each symbol within the poem. By dropping from a year, to a day, to the brief duration of a fire, Shakespeare is establishing empathy for our speaker through the lapse in time.[10] Additionally, the three metaphors utilized pointed to the universal natural phenomenon linked with existence. This phenomenon involved the realization of transience, decay, and death.[11] Despite negatively depicting the problem of aging in the first three quatrains, each symbol is needed to set up the purpose defined by the last couplet of the sonnet. In these lines, our speaker acknowledges the growth in his love for his significant other. This growth directly correlated to his lover's unrelenting adoration in spite of the physical deterioration caused by aging. "This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong; to love that well which thou must leave ere long" (Ln. 13–14).

Overall, the structure and use of metaphors are two connected entities toward the overall progression within the sonnet. Seen as a harsh critic on age, Shakespeare sets up the negative effects of aging in the three quatrains of this poem. These aspects not only take on a universal aspect from the symbols, but represent the inevitability of a gradual lapse in the element of time in general from their placement in the poem. Further, many of the metaphors utilized in this sonnet were personified and overwhelmed by this connection between the speaker's youth and death bed.[12] This inevitability leads to the purpose and transformation experienced from our author by the final lines of the poem. A deeper appreciation for his lover in spite of his narcissistic views toward death serves as the overall rationale behind Sonnet 73.[citation needed]

Interpretation and criticism[edit]

The subject of Sonnet 73 is under debate among many critics. Agreeing that the obvious interpretation of Sonnet 73 forces the reader to face the fatality of life, John Prince says that the most common conclusion reached is that the speaker is telling his listener about his own life and the certainty of death in his near future. After going through a lengthy description that, on the surface, describes the passage of time and the coming of death, he concludes his dissertation by saying that the reader perceives this eminent death and, because he does, he loves the author even more. However, an alternative understanding of the sonnet presented by Prince asserts that the author does not intend to address death, but rather the passage of youth. With this, the topic of the sonnet moves from the speaker's life to the listener's life.[13]

The key to these two interpretations lies in the very last line, "this thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, to love that well which thou must leave ere long". The question that must be addressed is this: to whom or to what is "that" referring to, the speaker's life or the reader's? This alternative interpretation suggests that it refers to the reader's life and therefore does not concern the death of the author, but rather the loss of youth of the reader. The last clause, which says "which thou must leave ere long", emphasizes this point, because the reader must eventually leave his youth.[14] Prince explains this by saying:

Why, if the speaker is referring to his own life, does he state that the listener must 'leave' the speaker's life? If the 'that' in the final line does refer to the speaker's life, then why doesn't the last line read 'To love that well which thou must lose ere long?' Or why doesn't the action of leaving have as its subject the 'I', the poet, who in death would leave behind his auditor?[15]

By understanding the last line to refer to the reader's life, rather than the speaker, Prince concludes that the sonnet is not referring to death and leaving love, like most would but instead the loss of youth that all must endure.

Additionally, Frank Bernhard criticizes the metaphors Shakespeare used to describe the passage of time, be it the coming of death or simply the loss of youth. Though lyrical, they are logically off and quite cliché, being the overused themes of seasonal change, sunset, and burn. In fact, the only notably original line is the one concerning leaves, stating that "when yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang, upon those boughs".[16] Logic would require that few should proceed none; in fact, if the boughs were bare, no leaves would hang. Bernhard argues that Shakespeare did this on purpose, evoking sympathy from the reader as they "wish to nurse and cherish what little is left", taking him through the logic of pathos – ruefulness, to resignation, to sympathy.[17] This logic, Bernhard asserts, dictates the entire sonnet. Instead of moving from hour, to day, to year with fire, then sunset, then seasons, Shakespeare moves backwards. By making time shorter and shorter, the reader's fleeting mortality comes into focus, while sympathy for the speaker grows. This logic of pathos can be seen in the images in the sonnet's three quatrains. Bernhard explains:

Think now of the sonnet's three quatrains as a rectangular grid with one row for each of the governing images, and with four vertical columns:

springsummer fallwinter
morning noonevening night

These divisions of the images seem perfectly congruous, but they are not. In the year the cold of winter takes up one quarter of the row; in the day, night takes up one half of the row; in the final row, however, death begins the moment the tree is chopped down into logs.[18]

This is a gradual progression to hopelessness. The sun goes away in the winter, but returns in the spring; it sets in the evening, but will rise in the morning; but the tree that has been chopped into logs and burned into ashes will never grow again. Bernhard concludes by arguing that the end couplet, compared to the beautifully crafted logic of pathos created prior, is anti-climactic and redundant. The poem's first three quatrains mean more to the reader than the seemingly important summation of the final couplet.[19]

Though he agrees with Bernhard in that the poem seems to create two themes, one which argues for devotion from a younger lover to one who will not be around much longer, and another which urges the young lover to enjoy his fleeting youth, James Schiffer asserts that the final couplet, instead of being unneeded and unimportant, brings the two interpretations together. In order to understand this, he explains that the reader must look at the preceding sonnets, 71 and 72, and the subsequent sonnet, 74. He explains:

The older poet may desire to 'love more strong' from the younger man but feels, as 72 discloses, that he does not deserve it. This psychological conflict explains why the couplet hovers equivocally between the conclusions 'to love me', which the persona cannot bring himself to ask for outright, and 'to love your youth', the impersonal alternative exacted by his self-contempt.[20]

By reading the final couplet in this manner, the reader will realize that the two discordant meanings of the final statement do in fact merge to provide a more complex impression of the author's state of mind. Furthermore, this successfully puts the focus of the reader on the psyche of the "I", which is the subject of the following sonnet 74.

Buddhist scholars look to this sonnet to illustrate that the nature of love lies in the awareness of life's impermanence; a lesson often learned too late. Ultimately, the one who must be loved is ourselves as we march past all the warning signs, into the black night. The curious line 'death's second self' strikes at the duality between the objective perception of death in others and the ego's interpretation of that event. In a sense, this sonnet also reaches back into pagan images of pyres and sacrifice, as well as reaching into a future that, instead of exaltations of heaven's glory, urges the reader to take responsibility for their own relationship with reality. - Austin Sirch



Further reading[edit]

First edition and facsimile
Variorum editions
Modern critical editions
  • Atkins, Carl D., ed. (2007). Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-4163-7. OCLC 86090499. 
  • Booth, Stephen, ed. (2000) [1st ed. 1977]. Shakespeare's Sonnets (Rev. ed.). New Haven: Yale Nota Bene. ISBN 0-300-01959-9. OCLC 2968040. 
  • Burrow, Colin, ed. (2002). The Complete Sonnets and Poems. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0192819338. OCLC 48532938. 
  • Duncan-Jones, Katherine, ed. (2010) [1st ed. 1997]. Shakespeare's Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series (Rev. ed.). London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-4080-1797-5. OCLC 755065951. 
  • Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. (1996). The Sonnets. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521294034. OCLC 32272082. 
  • Kerrigan, John, ed. (1995) [1st ed. 1986]. The Sonnets ; and, A Lover's Complaint. New Penguin Shakespeare (Rev. ed.). Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-070732-8. OCLC 15018446. 
  • Mowat, Barbara A.; Werstine, Paul, eds. (2006). Shakespeare's Sonnets & Poems. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Washington Square Press. ISBN 978-0743273282. OCLC 64594469. 
  • Orgel, Stephen, ed. (2001). The Sonnets. The Pelican Shakespeare (Rev. ed.). New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0140714531. OCLC 46683809. 
  • Vendler, Helen, ed. (1997). The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-63712-7. OCLC 36806589. 
  1. ^Pooler, C[harles] Knox, ed. (1918). The Works of Shakespeare: Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare [1st series]. London: Methuen & Company. OCLC 4770201. 
  2. ^Kau, Joseph. "Daniel's Influence on an Image in Pericles and Sonnet 73: An Impresa of Destruction." Shakespeare Quarterly 26(1975): 51-53.
  3. ^Richard B. Hovey, "Sonnet 73", College English 23.8 (1962): p. 672-673 < https://www.jstor.org/stable/373787>)
  4. ^Barbara Estermann, "Shakespeare's SONNET 73", Explicator 38.3 (2008): p. 11-12
  5. ^Barbara Estermann, "Shakespeare's SONNET 73", Explicator 38.3 (2008): p. 11
  6. ^Ed. Atkins, Carl D. Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007. pg. 197
  7. ^Barbara Estermann, "Shakespeare's SONNET 73", Explicator 38.3 (2008): p. 11.
  8. ^Atkins 198
  9. ^Barbara Estermann, "Shakespeare's SONNET 73", Explicator 38.3 (2008): p. 11.
  10. ^Frank Berhard, "Shakespeare Sonnet 73", Explicator Vol. 62 (2003): pg. 3
  11. ^James Schroeter, "Sonnet 73: Reply", College English, Vol. 23, No. 8 (1962) : pg. 673 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/3737888>
  12. ^Stephen Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets, New Haven and London Yale University Press (1977) pg. 260
  13. ^Prince, John S. Explicator 55.4 (1997): 197
  14. ^Prince 198
  15. ^Prince 197
  16. ^Bernhard, Frank. The Explicator 62.1 (2003): 3
  17. ^Bernhard 4
  18. ^Bernhard 4
  19. ^Bernhard 4
  20. ^Schiffer, James. Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays. New York and London: Garland, 1999. Print


that time of year (1): i.e., being late autumn or early winter.

When yellow leaves... (2): compare Macbeth (5.3.23) "my way of life/is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf."

Bare ruin'd choirs (4): a reference to the remains of a church or, more specifically, a chancel, stripped of its roof and exposed to the elements. The choirs formerly rang with the sounds of 'sweet birds'. Some argue that lines 3 and 4 should be read without pause -- the 'yellow leaves' shake against the 'cold/Bare ruin'd choirs.' If we assume the adjective 'cold' modifies 'Bare ruin'd choirs', then the image becomes more concrete -- those boughs are sweeping against the ruins of the church. Some editors, however, choose to insert 'like' into the opening of line 4, thus changing the passage to mean 'the boughs of the yellow leaves shake against the cold like the jagged arches of the choir stand exposed to the cold.' Noted 18th-century scholar George Steevens commented that this image "was probably suggested to Shakespeare by our desolated monasteries. The resemblance between the vaulting of a Gothic isle [sic] and an avenue of trees whose upper branches meet and form an arch overhead, is too striking not to be acknowledged. When the roof of the one is shattered, and the boughs of the other leafless, the comparison becomes more solemn and picturesque" (Quoted in Smith, p. 148).

black night (7): a metaphor for death itself. As 'black night' closes in around the remaining light of the day, so too does death close in around the poet.

Death's second self (8): i.e. 'black night' or 'sleep.' Macbeth refers to sleep as "The death of each day's life" (2.2.49).

In me thou see'st...was nourish'd by (9-12): The following is a brilliant paraphrase by early 20th-century scholar Kellner: "As the fire goes out when the wood which has been feeding it is consumed, so is life extinguished when the strength of youth is past." (Quoted in Rollins, p. 191)

that (12): i.e., the poet's desires.

This (14): i.e., the demise of the poet's youth and passion.

To love that well (12): The meaning of this phrase and of the concluding couplet has caused much debate. Is the poet saying that the young man now understands that he will lose his own youth and passion, after listening to the lamentations in the three preceding quatrains? Or is the poet saying that the young man now is aware of the poet's imminent demise, and this knowledge makes the young man's love for the poet stronger because he might soon lose him? What must the young man give up before long -- his youth or his friend? For more on this dilemma please see the commentary below.


Sonnets 71-74 are typically analyzed as a group, linked by the poet's thoughts of his own mortality. However, Sonnet 73 contains many of the themes common throughout the entire body of sonnets, including the ravages of time on one's physical well-being and the mental anguish associated with moving further from youth and closer to death. Time's destruction of great monuments juxtaposed with the effects of age on human beings is a convention seen before, most notably in Sonnet 55.

The poet is preparing his young friend, not for the approaching literal death of his body, but the metaphorical death of his youth and passion. The poet's deep insecurities swell irrepressibly as he concludes that the young man is now focused only on the signs of his aging -- as the poet surely is himself. This is illustrated by the linear development of the three quatrains. The first two quatrains establish what the poet perceives the young man now sees as he looks at the poet: those yellow leaves and bare boughs, and the faint afterglow of the fading sun. The third quatrain reveals that the poet is speaking not of his impending physical death, but the death of his youth and subsequently his youthful desires -- those very things which sustained his relationship with the young man.

Throughout the 126 sonnets addressed to the young man the poet tries repeatedly to impart his wisdom of Time's wrath, and more specifically, the sad truth that time will have the same effects on the young man as it has upon the poet. And as we see in the concluding couplet of Sonnet 73, the poet has this time succeeded. The young man now understands the importance of his own youth, which he will be forced to 'leave ere long' (14).

It must be reiterated that some critics assume the young man 'perceives' not the future loss of his own youth, but the approaching loss of the poet, his dear friend. This would then mean that the poet is speaking of his death in the literal sense. Feuillerat argues that
Even if we make allowance for the exaggeration which is every poet's right, Shakespeare was not young when he wrote this sonnet. It is overcast by the shadow of death and belongs to a date perhaps not far from 1609. (The Composition of Shakespeare's Plays, p. 72)
This interpretation is less popular because it is now generally accepted that all 154 sonnets were composed before 1600, so Shakespeare would have been no older than thirty-six. However, the sonnets were not initially printed in the order we now accept them, and an error in sequence is very possible.

Sonnet 73 is one of Shakespeare's most famous works, but it has prompted both tremendous praise and sharp criticism. Included here are excerpts from commentaries by two noted Shakespearean scholars, John Barryman and John Crowe Ransom:
The fundamental emotion [in Sonnet 73] is self-pity. Not an attractive emotion. What renders it pathetic, in the good instead of the bad sense, is the sinister diminution of the time concept, quatrain by quatrain. We have first a year, and the final season of it; then only a day, and the stretch of it; then just a fire, built for part of the day, and the final minutes of it; then -- entirely deprived of life, in prospect, and even now a merely objective "that," like a third-person corpse! -- the poet. The imagery begins and continues as visual -- yellow, sunset, glowing -- and one by one these are destroyed; but also in the first quatrain one heard sound, which disappears there; and from the couplet imagery of every kind is excluded, as if the sense were indeed dead, and only abstract, posthumous statement is possible. A year seems short enough; yet ironically the day, and then the fire, makes it in retrospect seem long, and the final immediate triumph of the poem's imagination is that in the last line about the year, line 4, an immense vista is indeed invoked -- that the desolate monasteries strewn over England, sacked in Henry's reign, where 'late' -- not so long ago! a terrible foreglance into the tiny coming times of the poem -- the choirs of monks lifted their little and brief voices, in ignorance of what was coming -- as the poet would be doing now, except that this poem knows. Instinct is here, after all, a kind of thought. This is one of the best poems in English.
(John Berryman, The Sonnets)

The structure is good, the three quatrains offering distinct yet equivalent figures for the time of life of the unsuccessful and to-be-pitied lover. But the first quatrain is the boldest, and the effect of the whole is slightly anti-climactic. Within this quatrain I think I detect a thing which often characterizes Shakespeare's work within the metaphysical style: he is unwilling to renounce the benefit of his earlier style, which consisted in the breadth of the associations; that is, he will not quite risk the power of a single figure but compounds the figures. I refer to the two images about the boughs. It is one thing to have the boughs shaking against the cold, and in that capacity they carry very well the fact of the old rejected lover; it is another thing to represent them as ruined choirs where the birds no longer sing. The latter is a just representation of the lover too, and indeed a subtler and richer one, but the two images cannot, in logical rigor, co-exist. Therefore I deprecate shake against the cold. And I believe everybody will deprecate sweet. This term is not an objective image at all, but a term to be located at the subjective pole of the experience; it expects to satisfy a feeling by naming it (this is, by just having it) and is a pure sentimentalism.
(John Crowe Ransom, Shakespeare at Sonnets).
For more on how the sonnets are grouped, please see the general introduction to Shakespeare's sonnets.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 73. Ed. Amanda Mabillard. Shakespeare Online. 8 Dec. 2012. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/73detail.html >.

References: Berryman, John. Berryman's Shakespeare. Ed. John Haffenden. New York: Farrar, Straus And Giroux, 1999.
Feuillerat, Albert. The Composition of Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953.
Forrest, H. T. S. The Five Authors of Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: Chapman & Dodd, Ltd., 1923.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. H. Rollins. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1944.
Smith, Hallett. The Tension of the Lyre. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1981.

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According to Wordsworth ... The famous poet William Wordsworth wrote that "the appropriate business of Poetry, (which, nevertheless, if genuine, is as permanent as pure science), her privilege and duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions." According to Wordsworth, Sonnet 73, for its "merits of thought and language" is one of Shakespeare's greatest poems.


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