Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
- The very first line of Shakespeare's poem hits us up with some classic, you know, Shakespearean language, so to speak—stuff like "thou," "mayst," and "behold."
- Really, though, what the speaker is saying here is very simple: "You can see that time of year in me."
- Well, maybe that isn't so clear after all. Which time of year is he talking about? The speaker hasn't told us yet, so we'll have to wait for the next line to find out.
- Also, isn't it a bit weird for the speaker to say that you can see a "time of year" in him? Is the speaker a tree? Maybe, but it doesn't seem very likely. We're willing to bet that we're dealing with a metaphor here—but let's just ride the poem out and see where it takes us.
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
- So, what time of year "mayst thou behold" in the speaker? Fall, it sounds like. Can we be any more specific than that? Is it early fall, late fall, middle fall?
- The speaker doesn't seem too sure. If there are still "yellow leaves" on the tree, then it is probably early fall. If there are none, then it sounds more like late fall—almost winter. And if there are "few," then that sounds like somewhere in the middle.
- Is the speaker totally open about which of these options is the true one? Or does he change his mind twice—first from "yellow leaves" to "none," and then from "none" to "few"—so that the last option shows his true opinion?
- We're not sure that this line gives you enough information to answer this last question—we'll have to keep reading to find out for sure. One thing's for sure though: generally speaking, the speaker thinks that his life is in its autumn phase.
- Which raises the question: what's the autumn of a life? (Now we're getting into, you know, that whole metaphor business.) Is the speaker super old and geriatric? Nah, that's winter. We're betting autumn's a metaphor for middle age.
- Depending on where the speaker is in his autumn phase (he hasn't told us yet), he might be in early, middle, or late middle age.
- But we're getting ahead of ourselves. We don't even know where those leaves are hanging. Let's read on to find out.
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
- Line 3 tells us where those leaves (however many of them there are) are hanging: on the "boughs" of some trees that are "shak[ing] against the cold."
- What's the speaker talking about here, and how does it fit into the general picture (or metaphor) he's been sketching for us so far?
- Actually, it's pretty simple. If the speaker is comparing himself to a tree, then the "boughs" or, if you like, limbs of that tree must be like… you got it: the limbs of his body.
- And the cold? We think it's pretty much up to interpretation, but we'd say it's got to have something to do with old age, death, sickness—you know, the general bad stuff that happens to you when you get old.
- Anything else interesting going on in this line? Like, maybe, a hidden joke? We'll give you a hint: think of who wrote this poem.
- Got it? That's right. We don't know about you, but we think there's a pretty clear pun in here. A "bough" isn't that far from a "spear," if you think about it—so a "bough" that "shake[s]" is pretty much like a "spear" that "shake[s]," making this a secret reference to… our main man himself.
- Apparently, Shakespeare enjoyed working shout-outs to himself into his poems. For other sonnets that play jokes on Shakespeare's name (leading to lots of obscene puns), check out Sonnets 135 and 136.
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
- Here, the speaker goes a bit further in describing those "boughs which shake against the cold" he introduced in the last line. Let's see if we can break down what he's saying to make sense of it.
- First thing's first: "Bare ruined choirs." The words "bare" and "ruined" shouldn't cause you too much trouble, but the word "choirs" is a bit trickier. It's actually an example of metonymy, as the speaker's referring to a piece of furniture—the wooden seats in a church where the members of the choir sit.
- Who are the members of this choir? Shakespeare tells us at the end of the line: the "sweet birds" that "sang" there.
- Bearing in mind that everything we've learned so far in quatrain 1 is a metaphor for the speaker being in middle age, it's a little unclear what these "sweet birds" might stand in for. Got any ideas?
- We're not positive, but we think the general idea must be something like youthful charm—and the same goes for the "leaves" we learned about in line 2. Now that the choirs are bare, his youth is gone.
- And the word "late" in this line doesn't mean what you probably think it means. The idea isn't that this choir of birds is giving a late-night performance on the branch. Instead, "late" here means something like lately, or recently.
- In other words, it wasn't long ago that the birds were singing in the boughs. Does this mean (going back to the metaphor in line 2) that it must be early fall, or early middle age?
- We don't think so—not necessarily, anyway. The general idea is more that the speaker is amazed and shocked at how recently he was young, at how quickly time passes.
- Now that we've got one quatrain under our belts, we thought we'd draw your attention to the meter of the poem. Hear that daDUM daDUM under the lines? That's iambic pentameter, the chosen meter of sonnet writers the world over.
- And while we're on the subject of form, did you notice anything else at work here? How about a rhyme scheme? "Behold" rhymes with "cold" and "hang" rhymes with "sang," which gives us ABAB. Check out our "Form and Meter" section for more.