Since, historically, Shakespeare’s sonnet is the first poem written in English included in this common core iphone amp anthology, we will use it to discuss some of the most perennial poetic tools still used in poetry over 400 years later. The poem is a good introduction to how poetic personification and comparsion, specifically metaphor, makes poetry a different language than standard prose.
A Brief Intro to Metaphor And Simile
What is a metaphor? Why use it? A metaphor is a comparison of two things, and usually one of these things is something you can feel or touch, or see, and the other is more intangible or abstract. A basic example is “Love is a Rose.” Love isn’t like a rose; it is a rose. A simile is like a metaphor, but adds the word “like.” “Love is like a rose” is a simile. A simile says two things are like each other: My tears are like rain, but a metaphor is stronger, and weirder: the sky is crying!
Metaphor does not just link these two terms, but creates a third one (a synthesis wider than the some of its parts). Take, for instance, the metaphor “A Marriage is a Carriage and Lust is the horse.” In this metaphor, the marriage and carriage go together. You can’t have one without the other, especially if you want love, the third term, the harmonious or equal bringing together of these terms. Metaphors need not be balanced or equal. For instance, the carriage of marriage could run over the horse of lust, or love. Or, to put it in simpler terms, to say that “love is a rose” is not to reduce love to a rose anymore than it is to widen the word “rose” to include love: A rose is love. If you let it die, you may be a hater.
In any event, metaphors are everywhere in our society, as George Lakoff has shown. We use them without thinking about them. There are fresh metaphors, and dead metaphors, and outdated metaphors that people still use anyway. In poetry, it’s one of the main tools most of these writers use, and often they make them more complex.
Metaphor And Conceit (and their usefulness to Critical Thinking)
A metaphor can be really short: “Hate is a Thorn,” but there are extended metaphors that can take several sentences, or stanzas. Sometimes, they can be extended so long that they take up an entire poem. A Metaphor that takes up an entire poem becomes its theme, or Conceit. A Metaphoric Conceit may sound like a fancy technical term, but once you understand what it can do, or what you—as a reader or writer of poetry—can do with it, the extended conceit becomes one of the most practical skills you can learn from poetry. It’s one of the ways poetry can help you learn the art of seeing both sides of an argument, and teaches skills comparing and contrasting so useful to critical thinking and understanding, or at least being able to communicate with others who may feel or think, or at least speak, very differently than you—skills necessary to survival in this world.
The Metaphor “My Life is a Gun” may sound crazy, but in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “My Life---Had Stood—A Loaded Gun,” she makes it more convincing. It takes her an entire poem to do this, as she breathes life into the phrase of speech, fleshes it out and embodies it, so by the end you can’t even tell if it’s really Emily Dickinson speaking or a poem spoken by a gun, telling you about how it feels. Many of the poems included in this Poetry Insight common core anthology app use simple metaphors, stanza-length metaphors, and poem-length metaphoric conceits.
Shakespeare Sonnet #73: A Brief Structural Analysis
Let’s start at the beginning with Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73. Like every “Shakespearean sonnet” (he didn’t call them that, and didn’t even entirely invent the form, which was a conventional form before he wrote them), this poem is divided up into three 4-line stanzas, and one two-line stanza, which is called an envoi.
In Sonnet #73, each 4-line stanza explores one metaphor. In the first four lines, the writer (the persona) makes two different metaphors and combines them. One is about time (in general): An Entire Human Life is a Year. Imagine if the first 12 years of your life were lived in one year. By February you would have learned to walk and talk! You would have saved your mother at least a year of having to change diapers! You’d learn how to tell time really quickly, and be in 1st Grade by half-way through June. Would that have been better?
This is a very common metaphor when people talk about life or careers (I just heard a sportscaster refer to a 35 year-old shortstop as in the “November of his career;” and there are many songs by older people with lines about “The September of my life.” We can picture Baby New Year, and Jolly Old Men in December. The human life span, the 70 or so years we’re promised if we eat our veggies, and exercise enough, and cross our fingers that nothing bad happen, is like a year (and in some countries and cultures “New Year” is celebrated closer to the first day of spring, or fall instead of the around the first day of winter).
Shakespeare takes this metaphor, and expands it. By using the phrase “in me,” Shakespeare’s persona talks about his own life as one year. He was only in his 30s when he wrote this, but he’s writing to someone who is younger than him. He believes the person he’s writing to, the person who he cares enough about to write a sonnet to (and addresses intimately as a “thou”) may see him (“Mayst behold”) as too old! But in order to say that Shakespeare doesn’t say exactly how old he is. He uses another metaphor to explain himself: I am a tree!
He’s a tree in autumn. His leaves are doing what leaves do every year: leave—they’re leaving him. “Leaves are hair” is another metaphor, and Shakespeare was, in fact prematurely bald. His boughs shake against the cold. I picture his sturdy trunk even shaking in this cold too, but he doesn’t even talk about his legs. There’s no sweet music the wind can make through the leaves, and the birds have fled him for warmer climates. The birds and leaves are images but they could also be symbols. Of course Shakespeare isn’t saying he is a tree, in this poem; he’s just asking the person he’s writing to you if he or she thinks he’s too old.
So why doesn’t he come out and just say that? Why, because poetry does other things too. It’ not just trying to complicate a simple statement, or even simply to decorate it. It’s inviting us to identify with how a tree might feel in October (or what the poet Wallace Stevens calls “Froz-Nil-Imbo” in his poem “Metamorphosis”). This rhetorical device may be called The Pathetic Fallacy or The Objective Correlative. The Pathetic Fallacy is a term the critic John Ruskin coined in the mid 19th century to criticize poetry that sees human, emotional, characteristics in non-human objects. Not every writer, however, considers this a fallacy or falseness. How do we know that trees aren’t crying? T.S. Eliot tries to defend what Ruskin calls this fallacy by calling it an Objective Correlative. “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events." Shakespeare’s tree certainly expresses an emotion in the form of art. Even further, it shows a deep connection between what common sense language calls human vs. what it calls inhuman. This is part of what makes poetry so powerful.
These two metaphors (“I am A Tree” and “Life is A Year”) are combined with another metaphor (which he doesn’t directly say): You Are My Mirror (there’s a beautiful simple song called “I’ll be Your Mirror,” by Lou Reed, which explores this conceit). This metaphor is the main Metaphorical Conceit of the poem, and takes the entire poem to unfold, or “unpack.”
In every stanza, Shakespeare uses the “You Are My Mirror” metaphor—but he gets rid of the tentative “mayst.” In the second stanza, “thou seest the twilight of such a day.” He changes the time metaphor from a year to a day. Midnight is January or birth (and could also be death, since the clock is a circle as the calendar is earth’s rotation around the sun). Noon is Summer, but you see me in Twilight, and it’s getting darker as he writes! What is “Death’s Second Self?” It’s not real death (nobody knows that mystery), but it’s the way we feel death in life: the darkest time of the day or night. The analogy between these two stanza-length metaphors is established in the first 8 lines, the poem’s octet. They are two ways of writing the same thing: the twilight of my life is the September of my years.
But in the third stanza, he uses a third metaphor that is not based on a unit of time like a day or a year. He uses the metaphor of a (dying) fire. Fires are mortal too. They need fuel, or they can burn themselves out. In fact, their very burning leads to their death; as a fire burns, what makes it alive is also what makes it die. A fire makes trees into ashes, but the ashes eventually can put out the fire.
In Kenneth Koch’s poem, “The Boiling Water,” he explores what it feels like to be a boiling pot of water. And in Sonnet #73, Shakespeare explores what it’s like to be a contained fire; he’s not talking about a rampant forest fire here, and there’s no mention of rain or firemen to put it out. He doesn’t need to extend the metaphor that far---but you can if you want! Maybe your teacher will give you extra-credit.
In the final two stanzas, the argument of the poem turns all of its focus to its addressee, the reader, the mirror, in the poem’s metaphoric conceit, who inspired the poem: Even if you do see me as all these all things---old and even not much longer for this earth, even if you must leave me (rather than “I must leave you”), right now you love me, despite this-- and that makes me happy! I feel loved!
To some modern readers, the last two lines seem “tacked on,” in a way that makes the poem unconvincing, but in many ways this ending changes everything in the poem, by reducing the expanded metaphorical arguments in the first 12 lines and expanding our interest in “thou.” Formally, this shows how the poem does not exist in isolation, but was written as part of a sequence, a narrative of lyric poems (if not quite as narrative as Shakespeare’s main art-form, his plays, which he was temporally unable to stage while he was writing these Sonnets during a plague that shut the theatres down). Many of the other sonnets in this sequence devote much more time to “thou” than “me.” This sonnet may whet our appetite to read them.
Yet the ending of the poem doesn’t just “click shut like a box” and resolve the mystery---the persona still doesn’t really know how strong “thy love” really is. He writes that it’s strong, because he wants “thou” to feel good for loving him, but when he adds “thou must leave ere long,” it’s not clear whether he means that he’s going to die soon, or that ‘thou’ (as a fickle youth) will tire of him. There’s still doubt—and maybe even a note of self-pity in the last line, but there does seem to be a burning hope for a response, for “thou” to write him back, or tell him “No, I won’t leave. And yes I do see you as all those things, but that’s what I love about you. I love older men, and I love you!
There reading only scratches the surface. Indeed, Sonnet #73 has been interpreted as many ways as there are readers, maybe even more! And that’s part of its point, not to be pinned down by a single meaning as everyday language puts it---to get us to think about the mystery of aging and time as much more complex than the linear calendar would put it. Every distinction the poem makes between self and other, real and imaginary, present and past, can be seen from at least two perspective. Thus, even a mournful sounding poem can stir wonder and allow us to think of the warmth spun by the word; and around its center, the dream called ourselves (as Tristan Tzara put it in Approximate Man).