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!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.
The speaker has been forced to endure a separation from the beloved, and in this poem he compares that absence to the desolation of winter. In the first quatrain, the speaker simply exclaims the comparison, painting a picture of the winter: “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 everywhere!” In the second quatrain, however, he says that, in reality, the season was that of late summer or early autumn, when all of nature was bearing the fruits of summer’s blooming. In the third quatrain, he dismisses the “wanton burthen of the prime”—that is, the bounty of the summer—as unreal, as the “hope of orphans.” It could not have been fathered by summer, because “summer and his pleasures” wait on the beloved, and when he is gone, even the birds are silent. In the couplet, the speaker says that the birds may sing when the beloved is gone, but it is with “so dull a cheer” that the leaves, listening, become fearful that winter is upon them.
The seasons, so often invoked as a metaphor for the passage of time in the sonnets, are here metaphorized, and function as a kind of delusional indication of how deeply the speaker misses the company of the beloved. As the second quatrain reveals, the speaker spends some time apart from the beloved in “summer’s time,” in late summer, when the natural world is heavy with the fruits of the summer. But without the young man’s presence, the world of abundance and plenty instead resembles “old December’s bareness,” not the pleasures of summer attendant upon the young man’s presence.
The linguistic richness of this poem is the cause of its prominence and popularity among the sonnets. With an economy of imagery, the speaker manages to evoke the “freezings” and “dark days” of winter, the warmth and luxury of the “teeming autumn, big with rich increase,” and, in the third quatrain, the uneasy coexistence of the two in the lonely speaker’s mind. The poem makes use of its strong alliteration (“fleeting” and “freezings”, “dark days” and “December”, “time” and “teeming”, “widowed wombs”, “orphans” and “unfathered fruit”) to give it linguistic weight and pacing, and its lines seem stuffed full with of evocative words.
Probably because of this sensory and imagistic luxury, Sonnet 73 has become the ancestor of a great many other important poems, most notably Keats’s ode “To Autumn.” Its sense and its images are also present in Keats’s sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” and “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters,” many of Robert Frost’s autumn lyrics, and other important poems.
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