Before we go into summarizing Sonnet 73, we should make one thing clear from the start: not much really happens in this poem as far as ideas are concerned. Basically, you've got one idea (the speaker is growing old, and it stinks) that runs from line 1 all the way down to line 12.
In lines 13-14, you get a different idea, though it's related to the first one. The speaker tells the person he is talking to that, because he (the speaker) is going to die soon, the other person should treasure their love all the more.
Fair enough—so why are we reading this poem exactly? Well, the thing is that, this being a poem and all, it's a lot less about what the poet says and a lot more about how he says it. In this case, how the poet says it makes all the difference. That's because Sonnet 73 is really all about the poet showing off—by using a different main metaphor in each of the three quatrains.
In quatrain 1, the main idea is all about the changing of the seasons: the speaker compares his middle-aged self to a tree that is losing its leaves in fall. In quatrain 2, he changes imagery. Now, the speaker compares himself to a fading sunset. Then, in quatrain 3, he changes things up again, this time comparing himself to the last glow of a fire in the process of burning out.
Throughout all this time, we haven't heard anything about love, or the specific relationship between the speaker and whomever he is speaking to. So when the concluding couplet comes around, it gets to have a nice surprise effect by revealing exactly the details that have remained hidden until now. This is all pretty nifty, in Shmoop's humble opinion.
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 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.
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
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Summary: Sonnet 73
In this poem, the speaker invokes a series of metaphors to characterize the nature of what he perceives to be his old age. In the first quatrain, he tells the beloved that his age is like a “time of year,” late autumn, when the leaves have almost completely fallen from the trees, and the weather has grown cold, and the birds have left their branches. In the second quatrain, he then says that his age is like late twilight, “As after sunset fadeth in the west,” and the remaining light is slowly extinguished in the darkness, which the speaker likens to “Death’s second self.” In the third quatrain, the speaker compares himself to the glowing remnants of a fire, which lies “on the ashes of his youth”—that is, on the ashes of the logs that once enabled it to burn—and which will soon be consumed “by that which it was nourished by”—that is, it will be extinguished as it sinks into the ashes, which its own burning created. In the couplet, the speaker tells the young man that he must perceive these things, and that his love must be strengthened by the knowledge that he will soon be parted from the speaker when the speaker, like the fire, is extinguished by time.Read a translation of Sonnet 73 →
Sonnet 73 takes up one of the most pressing issues of the first 126 sonnets, the speaker’s anxieties regarding what he perceives to be his advanced age, and develops the theme through a sequence of metaphors each implying something different. The first quatrain, which employs the metaphor of the winter day, emphasizes the harshness and emptiness of old age, with its boughs shaking against the cold and its “bare ruined choirs” bereft of birdsong. In the second quatrain, the metaphor shifts to that of twilight, and emphasizes not the chill of old age, but rather the gradual fading of the light of youth, as “black night” takes away the light “by and by”. But in each of these quatrains, with each of these metaphors, the speaker fails to confront the full scope of his problem: both the metaphor of winter and the metaphor of twilight imply cycles, and impose cyclical motions upon the objects of their metaphors, whereas old age is final. Winter follows spring, but spring will follow winter just as surely; and after the twilight fades, dawn will come again. In human life, however, the fading of warmth and light is not cyclical; youth will not come again for the speaker. In the third quatrain, he must resign himself to this fact. The image of the fire consumed by the ashes of its youth is significant both for its brilliant disposition of the past—the ashes of which eventually snuff out the fire, “consumed by that which it was nourished by”—and for the fact that when the fire is extinguished, it can never be lit again.
In this sense, Sonnet 73 is more complex than it is often considered supposed by critics and scholars. It is often argued that 73 and sonnets like it are simply exercises in metaphor—that they propose a number of different metaphors for the same thing, and the metaphors essentially mean the same thing. But to make this argument is to miss the psychological narrative contained within the choice of metaphors themselves. Sonnet 73 is not simply a procession of interchangeable metaphors; it is the story of the speaker slowly coming to grips with the real finality of his age and his impermanence in time.
The couplet of this sonnet renews the speaker’s plea for the young man’s love, urging him to “love well” that which he must soon leave. It is important to note that the couplet could not have been spoken after the first two quatrains alone. No one loves twilight because it will soon be night; instead they look forward to morning. But after the third quatrain, in which the speaker makes clear the nature of his “leav[ing] ere long,” the couplet is possible, and can be treated as a poignant and reasonable exhortation to the beloved.