Historical Context in Sonnet 73

Historical Context Examples in Sonnet 73:

Sonnet 73 6

"his youth..."   (Sonnet 73)

The use of “his” in this line is subtle. In Elizabethan parlance, “his” often served as a replacement for “its,” and granted possession to gender-neutral subjects, such as the fire. Yet the fire is a metaphor for a human life, and so the use of “his” succeeds in anthropomorphizing the fire in a fitting manner. The specifically male tone of “his” is appropriate in that the fire represents the male speaker’s dwindling life.

"Bare ruined choirs..."   (Sonnet 73)

“Bare ruined choirs” also extends the printmaking metaphor. A “choir” refers to a pair of connected leaves of paper, the central seam of which is stitched into the book’s spine. The image of “bare ruined choirs” suggests an end to the speaker’s poetic output. His pages have become “bare,” empty of verse, or “ruined” by the ravages of time.

"Bare ruined choirs..."   (Sonnet 73)

“Bare ruined choirs” also evokes the image of abandoned churches, “choir” then metonymically referring to the area in a church where the choir sings. This serves as a historical allusion to the desecration of the Catholic monasteries during the Protestant Reformation in England. When Henry VIII left the Catholic Church in 1534, his orders left many cathedrals bare and ruined across the English landscape.

"against the cold..."   (Sonnet 73)

The printing press arrived in England in 1476 with printer William Caxton. It was revolutionary technology that allowed writers to reach mass audiences and preserve their work for generations. By juxtaposing print metaphors with winter, the speaker suggests that his printing endeavor has failed. “None” or “few” of his “leaves,” pages of poetry, survive against “the cold;” the “choirs,” collection of leaves in a book, are ruined. In combining images of winter with comparisons to books, the speaker reveals his worry that his poetry will not survive when it is printed; his poetry is just as subject to death as his body.

"hang..."   (Sonnet 73)

“Hang” furthers the dual meaning of this line. Leaves hang on trees and fall off as they die leaving “few” or “none’ there over time. However, in Early Modern papermaking, sheets of paper would be “hung” to dry after being pressed into shape. The extended printing metaphor in this quatrain makes the poem self-referential: metaphors for winter double as metaphors for the physical structures that make up the book we are reading.

"yellow leaves..."   (Sonnet 73)

“Yellow leaves” both refers to dying leaves on a tree and pages in a book. Early Modern English paper was made out of clothing scraps and generally had a yellow hue due to the papermaking process. This does not necessarily mean the paper is old, though it could also be a reference to pages in medieval books which were made on yellow vellum, animal skin paper.