Posted by: gdevi | May 2, 2015

That Time of Year Thou May’st in Me Behold

Next week is finals week and I have been grading all day, except for a brief detour to clean the deck and part of the backyard. What a life. But what I wanted to note was that I was grading the poetry reader responses, and I am so pleased that so many students chose to write their response on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73: “That time of year thou may’st in me behold.”  I teach it all the time; it is one of my favorite poems, in any language. I am so pleased, because, in general, students of this generation do not like reading Shakespeare. I always correct them when they tell me that Shakespeare writes in “Old English.” When you look at the history of the English language, what linguists call Old English is the variety of English between 5AD-12AD–the English of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or Beowulf, for instance. Middle English is the English of writers like Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, the English between 12AD-16AD. Modern English begins with the mid 1500s, and Shakespeare (1564-1616) is an early Modern English writer. Shakespeare’s syntax and vocabulary, for the most part, are identical to ours. So it is always a teachable moment for me when students tell me that Shakespeare is Old English. You want to read Old English? Well, here is a sample:

So, as you can see, Shakespeare is NOT Old English.

Anyway, I am totally delighted this semester, though, because so many students have lovingly written their reader responses to Sonnet 73, one of the most beautiful poems in English. I have a particular affinity for this poem. When I was writing my qualifying exam for my doctorate, you are tested in three broad areas: one genre, one literary period, and one author. The genre that I chose to be tested on was Lyric poetry. My literary period was the European Baroque, and my author was Jonathan Swift.  My poetry exam was set by Jay Meek, a wonderful teacher, poet and friend. (Jay once gave me my nicest compliment ever –“Thank you for your clear intelligence.”) I basically had to study everything lyric from the beginning of time to 1993. There were all kinds of questions, and then there was one poem to demonstrate a sentence level explication. It was Sonnet 73. I had once told Jay that that was one of my favorite poems, and he was so kind to gift that poem to me for my exam. Teaching is a gift economy, and I always treat my students, the way my teachers treated me.

I read many responses to this poem this past couple of hours. I am so pleased, really. These young men and women really understood the poem. Good work, boys and girls. I often wish that this poem were set to music.

Sonnet 73

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.
In me thou seest 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 seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.


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