AD's English Literature : Time Puzzle in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97 (How like a winter hath my absence been)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Time Puzzle in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97 (How like a winter hath my absence been)



  Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97 

How like a winter hath my absence been (a)
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year! (b)
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
(a)  
What old December's bareness every where! (b)
And yet this time removed was summer's time,(c)
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase, (d)
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime, (c)
Like widow'd wombs after their lords' decease:(d)
Yet this abundant issue seem'd to me ( e)
But hope of orphans and unfather'd fruit;(f)
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee, (e)
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;(f)
Or, if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer (g)
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near. (g)
 

Before we analyze the Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 97 , let's look a glimpse of his sonnets first. His Sonnets were not published between 1598-1609. A contemporary, Francis Meres, praised Shakespeare as a “mellifluous and honey-tongued” poet equal to the Roman Ovid, praising in particular his “sugared sonnets” that were circulating “among his private friends.” There are 154 sonnets describe the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man W. H. or Fair Friend whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless Dark Lady. There is sometimes a rival character, a competitor poet of the poet. Critics debate over the design of the poetry- is it a Shakespeare's inner voice or is it a miniature drama in poetry?
Before we analyze the Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 97 , let's look a glimpse of his sonnets first. His Sonnets were not published between 1598-1609. A contemporary, Francis Meres, praised Shakespeare as a “mellifluous and honey-tongued” poet equal to the Roman Ovid, praising in particular his “sugared sonnets” that were circulating “among his private friends.” There are 154 sonnets describe the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man W. H. or Fair Friend whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless Dark Lady. There is sometimes a rival character, a competitor poet of the poet. Critics debate over the design of the poetry- is it a Shakespeare's inner voice or is it a miniature drama in poetry?More William Shakespeare
 
“How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December's bareness every where!”
However the real time is late autumn:
And yet this time removed was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the Wonton burden of the prime,
Like widowed wombs after their lords’ decease.
Summer, we know, is not autumn, yet Shakespeare seems to link the two together as if they’re the same. Why? Maybe here we do have to guess. But we have some guidance. “And yet” suggests that although the absence has been like a winter, in reality it’s been a different season—a much more positive season, as “teeming,” “bug,” “rich” suggest. Lots of life (as opposed to the bleak winter). So let’s think of the real season as summer-shading-into-autumn: the grain is ripening, plump fruit droop from the boughs of the trees. But a sudden dark note is struck. All this fruit and grain, like little children, suddenly become, through a metaphor, “the wanton” sexual activity, it seems. And then another simile, building on this image: all these offspring come from the “widowed womb” of autumn; but now her husband, the spring, is dead, and she’s left a widow. How sad!
See what Shakespeare has done? It’s very characteristic. He starts with a straightforward comparison: my absence was like winter. Then he tells that it was really summer-fall. Then—and this is the typical Shakespeare touch—he uses some more images to show you how this teeming, rich, abundant harvest time strikes him: yes, lots of life, but pathetic life, orphans of the widow. And we now have a new way to think about the seasons: spring is gone, gone, gone, leaving only the traces that it engendered. Read More William Shakespeare
  " Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute."
Here he continues tracking the implications of his previous comparison. “Yet” once again indicates a contrast between the way things are and the way things seem. But here the contrast is a little misleading: he’s already struck the dark note, with the “widowed wombs” and the dead husband. But “seemed” emphasizes the seeming of all this ( not the way it really is): the harvest consists of orphans, “unfathered fruit,” without much to look forward to. Why? Why, that is, should Shakespeare find this “abundant issue” such a source of gloom? Because you (thou”) were away, and without you summer gives no pleasure and even the birds don’t sing. Read More William Shakespeare
 
This is hyperbole, or exaggeration: we can’t take literally the idea that an individual’s absence causes all the birds to be mute. It just seems that way to the speaker—without you there is no joy in the world. What does this suggest? Certainly some intense level of emotional attachment. Scholars are generally agreed that this is one of the sonnets that Shakespeare addresses to the “fair young man,” though they disagree about who the fair young man might be or what, exactly, Shakespeare’s relationship to this youth was. But readers have always felt free to apply Shakespeare’s sonnets to any generalized love affair—in this case, expressing the misery of absence.
So far we’ve had three quatrains: units of four lines, each rhyming abab (thee, fruit, me, mute). This is known as the Shakespearean sonnet, and you’ll notice that each four-line verse unit is also marked off as a unit of meaning (by the “and yet” of line five and the “yet” of line nine). But a sonnet needs fourteen lines, so Shakespeare needs to add a couplet to all this.
"Or, if they sing, ‘tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near."
OK, Shakespeare seems to be saying, maybe the birds really did sing, and that stuff about their being mute was an exaggeration. But if they did sing, they did so drearily, as if they were afraid of the winter.
Does this add much to what he’s already given us? Sometimes one senses that William Shakespeare has pretty much tied up everything by the end of the twelfth line, and then tacks on the couplet mainly because his sonnet needs a couplet. At other times the couplet really does add a significant new slant ( note the end of number 73, for instance). On this one, different readers will probably have different responses.
So much for the meaning of the words. We also need to pay some attention to the way those words sound. He makes more subtle use of alliteration than what we find back in Old English: freezing-felt; dark ages; widowed wombs; unfathered fruit. He likes to interweave long vowel sounds: notice, for example, all those “ee” sounds. (We call such use of similar vowel sounds assonance). And he likes to use similarities of sound to hint at connections of sense: note how “bareness” might just bring to mind “barrenness” ( inability to have children), and is picked up by its seeming opposite “bearing” (having children). And notice how those three-in-a-row stressed syllables in the last line (“leaves look pale”) seem to limp along. All this operates more or less beneath our conscious to help produce the emotional effect of the poetry.



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