On Trying To Recite Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 To My Unborn Daughter


I have been trying to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It should not be difficult to do so. It is not a long poem, or particularly complicated. It is precise in its rhymes, its division into quatrains, a final couplet. Everything that memory needs. Yet there is something in my mind that resists the poem. I cannot take it, not all of it, not all at once. Somewhere in the third quatrain I start to lose it. In me thou seest the glowing of such fire / Which [or that?] on the ashes…doth lie. The confident, smooth pentameter—which seizes your body and compels compliance with its rhythm—begins to halt. I stammer, I curse, I try again. Like the death bed where it doth expire / Consumed by what it was nourished by.

I have been reciting the poem to my daughter, head pressed to your belly. She does not yet know that there is such a thing as language. How could she? In the closed envelope where she grows, she hears the roar of your aorta, loud as a vacuum cleaner, Tim told us. The rush of your blood and, sometimes crackling beyond it, her father failing to recite a poem. That time of year thou mayst in me behold. What does it mean that this is the first language she will hear, before she knows what language is? A language of such sweet earthiness and bodily complexity that her father cannot speak it. It could be part of her mother’s body—this language that she hears, breaking in my mouth. It could be a process of the body, like the rush of blood. She does not know there is a world beyond her closet, her envelope, Tim says. She will not know even after she leaves it. Which by and by black night doth take away. She does not know that she has a father—a father who recites poems to her about aging and death, the failure of the body, the condition that she has just begun to inherit.

As I recite—or fail to recite—Sonnet 73 to my unborn child, I am trying to teach her something she already knows about language. The first thing she knows about language. That it is opaque, impenetrable, ungiving of itself. It is what poetry teaches us about language. That language cannot be known, cannot be said, cannot be approached. That it shivers like a wounded dog if you get too close to it. Shivers because you are the one who has wounded it.

On another occasion, I said what I wanted to say about the Sonnets—their unbearable fructifying impulse. The Sonnets demand. That there should be more life, more beauty. From fairest creatures we desire increase. Then their demand begins to wither, to deliquesce. Does the poet want more or does he want more of the same. That’s for thee to breed another thee / Or ten times happier be it ten for one. On that other occasion, I wanted to produce knowledge, to make a set of verifiable statements about the Sonnets. What they say, what they mean. In one sense, this would be the task of criticism. Wouldn’t it? Take a text and say something new about it—something which has always been true, but no one has noticed yet. Does the text become more beautiful when a critic touches it? Maybe.

It is not my intention here to produce knowledge about the Sonnets. I would rather write of the Sonnets, with the Sonnets, for the Sonnets.The prepositions are not right. Not yet, and maybe not ever. There is something in these poems that will not be said, that refuses language. Even as it is made of language. I want to attend to the experience of difficulty in reading the Sonnets. The way that they invite, seduce, our sense that knowledge might be made from them. They are always on the verge of being sayable—always. I would describe their crisp lucidity, the almost tyrannical organization of quatrains. The way that syntax, rhyme, and image snap into alignment so sweetly and rigorously: to be indivisible and whole. Then, the opacity of the syntax itself. A point of resistance and difficulty, a complication. As if scuffing the luminous surface of the writing.

One can unfold Shakespeare’s tense and crabbed pronouncements, ponder the many directions that they move—as Stephen Booth does in his magisterial edition of the Sonnets. Helpful as this labor is, it doesn’t answer to the experience—the phenomenology—of reading Shakespeare, the way that, in such moments, one encounters language: encounters it as a rough, astringent material. Encounters it as a material. Consum’d with that which it was nourished by. I am saying: there is a contradiction between lucidity and opacity in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I am saying: if there is a contradiction between lucidity and opacity in Shakespeare’s sonnets then the task of the reader, the responsibility, is not to resolve the tension, the contradiction, but to savor its resistance, its intransigence. Beauty must be not only convulsive, but complicated: an impure, many-alloyed thing.

I am also trying to account for the mystery of these poems, which I understand to be their pleasure. Why are they pleasurable? It doesn’t make sense. Take Sonnet 73 as an example. The poem consists of three metaphors for aging and death, followed by an admonition. The aging body is like a stand of trees in Autumn: the birds have fled; the leaves have fallen. The aging body is like the sky in the west after the sun sets and as the last light drips away. The aging body is like a fire which consumes its own fuel and chokes on its ashes. I am aging; therefore, you should love me ferociously. If we love something and we know it can be lost, then we love it ferociously.

The poem is very slight. None of these are original images. It is one idea, repeated three times—dressed up in three different metaphors. It shouldn’t work. The poem succeeds because of its absolute commitment to its own architecture. It believes that the pleasure its architecture offers is so sweet and so seductive that we will gladly have it again and again. Let me describe that architecture for a moment—describe it in a way that will seem naïve and untutored. This is the kind of thing I ask my students to do: what kind of poem is this, how is it made. In the case of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, however, there is something embedded in the surface of the poems that deeper, more skillful, reading tends to miss. Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.

The poem consists of four sentences and four units of rhyme. Each sentence, each unit of rhyme, and each metaphor, find their conclusion at exactly the same point:  

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 ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

It is like singing, isn’t it? The way that the phrase finds at the end of line four a perfect coherence between sound, syntax, and image. We did not know that they had been held apart until they meet. There is a surplus of pleasure—the quatrain is more beautiful and more whole than we expect it to be. Then it happens again:

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.

I have been reading this poem for a long time, tracing its joints, its architecture. When I first read it, in my early twenties, I was caught, stopped, somewhere in the first stanza. bare ruined choirs. It is a young man’s image of what aging is like. Reading changes with the body that reads. The knees buckle, the skin weathers. Time writes on the surface of the body, though what it says is illegible, ruined, like a field after the crops have been worked. The Shakespeare of the Sonnetsis obsessed, passionate, unrelenting. He sees the body in its fullness, in its horror. a tattered weed of small worth held. All it does is diminish, descend. Then it happens again:

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.

The images become less beautiful, less charismatic, as the poem progresses: at first, the luminous forest, with its bare branches and yellow leaves; at the end, a smutty fireplace, choking on its own waste. It is as though the poem itself is choking, gasping. Each quatrain offers an image of decay and death. Each death is less bearable, less beautiful. Until, in the final quatrain, we are close to the fact of death itself. As close as metaphor will get us. It’s the thing I like best about Shakespeare—his absolute horror of the body, his terrible refusal to look away from it. And so his language begins to molder, to reek, like murdered Polonius under the staircase.

But the writing itself never relents. The poem maintains its precise, obsessive, music. Each quatrain inaugurates, then resolves, a separation between sound and image, sentence and line. It is regular as a beating heart, the turn of night toward the day. It renews itself, its own music, with implacable momentum—like the first knots of grass in spring, forcing their way through the crust. It is a kind of resurrection, I mean, the way the poem just keeps going.

If I were close reading the poem, I might pause here to emphasize the coherence between form and content: the way that the images that Shakespeare offers—of night and day, autumn and spring—trope the poem’s own temporal operations, the way that it opens and closes, reaches a point of termination, then renews itself, systole and diastole. The poem is an image of a poem, I would say, the way form drives a poem forward, past exhaustion, past the limitations of the body that writes it, into flourishing, renewal. Even if such flourishing returns, must return, to the same senescence, the same exhaustion.

I would say that, but I am not close reading the poem. I am describing its architecture, its surface, its structure. I am admiring the machine of the sonnet, the way it moves, insatiable, relentless, static. It flexes and bends, but it does not move forward. It repeats the same gestures. It jogs in place. Only love can stop it. Love is what the poem demands and love is what ruptures the poem’s machinery:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In this poem, love is catastrophic, apocalyptic. The need for it sets the poem in motion. When Shakespeare finally demands it in the couplet, the demand both completes and breaks the poem. The cycle of images, the iterative accumulation of metaphors for death, suffers its own death. The machine ceases to turn. Shakespeare tolerates a fact that might otherwise be unbearable: that the poem has to end. It cannot continue to elaborate itself, not indefinitely. He tolerates this fact because, it turns out, he has something to say. He has an argument, a point, a teleology toward which he has been moving, steadily and confidently. Disappointing, right?

Here is where my memory falters, where I cannot absorb the poem—not in its entirety. I never get the couplet right. I rarely even get to the couplet. I get caught, stuck along the way. If the poem has a teleology, it fails to deliver this reader to the moment where it fulfils its design. The problem is language. There is such a clotting of reference, of deixis, in the poem: That time of year, when yellow leaves, upon those boughs, where late, such day, such fire, that on the ashes, with that which it, to love that well. Indeed, the poem begins with an indexical gesture: that time of year. It does not specify which time of year until its second line. Its readers are suspended, for a moment, in a space of pure potential; we are offered an experience of referentiality shorn of reference. In that void, that lapse, possibility opens: what does it mean to see a time of year in a person? The image is unstable, unmanageable. The scale of a human life and the scale of a year fail to cohere. For a moment—then the eye travels down the page; the metaphor clicks into place. In reading a poem like this, the gesture one makes is like swallowing an unhelpful remark. You see it wrong before you see it right. And you are expected not to say so, to suppress the sense of instability, impossibility, illegibility that opens the poem—so that the poem can do its work, can make meaning and image from language which otherwise refers to nothing but itself.

Why do we keep reading when we reach the end of line one? Why do we consent to see syntax completed, reference aligned? How do we know where a poem begins and where it ends? My daughter, listening to her father recite a poem, again and again, each time failing to reach the point that we would call its ending, would not know. Nothing could be less legible to her than a “year” or “me” or “behold.” Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

There are moments where sonnet 73 seems sick of its own demand to be meaningful. There are moments where the poet attempts to escape from reference through an excess of reference. Where the poet cultivates impossibility, so that the reader will no longer be able to complete the gesture: to move forward, to assimilate the elements of line or sentence into some meaningful utterance. For instance, line twelve: consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. Reading that line is like wading through loose sand. It has no meter to speak of: the opening iamb (is it an iamb?), consum’d is followed by four blank syllables, all either equally stressed or unstressed: with. that. which. it. Only in the final two feet does the line return to something like an iambic rhythm. One could get lost in that long blank space at the center of the line. One could wander there forever. The meter—which otherwise seizes and compels—lets your body go slack. Unplanned, loose. In a poem otherwise so regulated, I experience it as a kind of freedom. Likewise, the meaning of the utterance seems, briefly, to deflate, like a punctured bladder. It is possible to discern what Shakespeare is saying here, but only just. The way he says it is strange, excessive, ungraceful—the passive voice, the hanging participle. The burden of the poem’s architecture becomes too much.

The line I have been analyzing comes at the close of the poem’s third quatrain. It falls at exactly that moment of sweetness where the poem’s architecture asserts itself, where Shakespeare reminds us that a sonnet is a technology of binding and braiding, introducing, then reconciling, threads of syntax, sound, and image. He manages, in this final quatrain, one last moment of sweetness and surprise—but it comes at a cost. To get the rhyme between lie and by, he has to twist the sentence, to bend it. It almost breaks. He has to insinuate within the Palladian architecture of his poem a chthonic darkness, where language returns to its raw and blistered seeds. Sonnet 73 offers its readers two limit experiences of language: an extreme of sweetness, order, and rationality; an extreme of materiality, language as pure and cloudy as milk. I would say, if I were close reading the poem (I am not close reading the poem) that this one of the things form can do: it can muster contradictory experiences of language. Not that it happens often. The poets, when they use form, tend to use it to suppress or to smooth. Not to frame the scuffed, illegible surface of language. Does Sonnet 73 do that? Maybe. Yes. It is hard to say. It does something to language which is hard to describe, but which one wears in the body—like an urge or a desire. Like pleasure. 

If you describe experience, experience begins to shiver. I wanted to attend here, as precisely as I could, to the experience of reading the poem—the way it feels, in your body, to have both of these experiences of language. More: to have them at the same time. To describe the experience, however, one must pull it apart, divide it. It becomes two experiences—lucidity and opacity. They are layered, interwoven, braided. They are organized in a relation to each other; pick your metaphor to describe that relation. And then you have already failed: failed because you have assumed that they have a relation and relation implies that they are separate, must be brought into relation with each other. The body is like that: many things that do not need to be brought into relation. Perhaps that’s why Shakespeare iterates, insistently, redundantly, in sonnet 73, churning in place, rather than moving forward. He does not want to tell us that his body is like a stand of bare trees or twilight or a dying fire. Or he does want to tell us that—but as soon as he does, he realizes that the metaphor has failed. Another metaphor becomes necessary. In their sheer accumulation, their plurality, his metaphors mark their own failure to be the body, to occupy the space where the body is.

To memorize a poem is to take the poem into your body. It becomes part of the library of your flesh, its experience of the world. Or it becomes one of the capacities your body contains—like jumping or breathing. I cannot memorize sonnet 73; it will not enter into my body’s library. Why should it? Who am I to take this poem, to make it part of me? Better to have only part of the poem, so that my relation to it is an ache, a wound that will not close. If I keep reading it, reciting it, breaking the language as I do so, careless as a heavy-footed child, it is because my relationship to the poem is not complete, cannot be closed. Why does one read a poem again and again? How do you know when you are done with it? To paraphrase Mary Ruefle, perhaps you are finished reading a poem when it no longer bothers you. consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. Sonnet 73 bothers me. Maybe it always will. That is why I am reciting it to you, child almost ready to join the world. Not because I want to teach you anything about language—anything you do not already know. Because I want to invite you: to step into the problem, the complication, with me.

Toby Altman is the author of Discipline Park (Wendy’s Subway, 2023) and Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017). He has held fellowships from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts, MacDowell, Millay Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, where he was a 2021 Poetry Fellow. He teaches at Beloit College.