William Shakespeare is alive and well and living robustly in America’s Finest City. This coming Monday, October 10, starting at 7:30 pm, I’ll have the honor of emceeing the 15th annual evening of Celebrity Sonnets, sponsored by the San Diego Shakespeare Society, on whose board I serve. Through comedy, music, song and dance, local celebrities and performers will dramatize sonnets to a Bard-loving audience. Onstage I’ll be joined by the likes of legendary actor Jonathan McMurtry, 9-year-old starlet Catalina Zelles, mellifluous singers and three dance performances. The venue is the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at the Old Globe Theatre, our city’s most venerable cultural institution. For details, go to www.sandiegoshakepearesociety.org.
The Elizabethan age was the age of the sonnet, a compact fixed verse form written in iambic pentameter and consisting of three quatrains (four-line clusters) and a couplet (two lines). It was in the Elizabethan Age that the sonnet landed in England and flourished, with William Shakespeare becoming its most luminous practitioner. Let’s take a brief walk through one of the Bard’s most affecting and enduring sonnets:
That time of year thou may’st 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.
The speaker is an old man addressing a younger person. In the first quatrain, the elder compares his declining time of life to late fall or early winter. He is like a tree bereft of all but a few leaves, a tree like a church chancel stripped of its roof and exposed to the elements. The once stately tree is now abandoned by birds and their joyous music, perhaps an emblem of the disintegrating voice of the narrator himself..
The focus of the second quatrain narrows to the twilight of a day. The old man compares night to the fading of the light of youth and to Death itself, a common Renaissance belief.
In the third quatrain, the lens grows even smaller and more concentrated. Now the metaphor compares senescence to a dying fire. The flame is extinguished by its own ashes, created by its own burning, just as the nourishing fuel of our youth turns to ashes and snuffs out our lives. The sonnet’s three quatrains metaphorically paint a mind’s eye picture of the dying of the light and the ultimate conquest of darkness.
But there is a difference in the metaphor that informs that third quatrain. “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” sang romantic poet Percy Byshhe Shelley. And after spring arrives summer, after summer, follows fall and after fall, winter returns. Similarly, following the blackness of each night dawns the day, and day presages another night.
In other words, the seasons and the darkness and the light are cyclical, continuously renewed. But the ravages of old age and death are final. When the fire is snuffed out, it does not naturally rekindle itself.
In the concluding couplet, the aged speaker urges the youth “to love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Two interpretations of this line coalesce: The first is “Show your love for me now because I will soon be taken from you.” Merged with this meaning is a second message: “After hearing my lamentations, young man, you must understand how fleeting is your own youthful power. Cherish the bright brevity of your innocence and vigor before the season of light and sweet birds and glowing flames darkens into old age and death.”