Easthope, Anthony. "Same Text, Different Readings: Shakespeare's Sonnet 94." Critical Quarterly 28, no. 1-2 (1986): 53-60.
Shakespeare's sonnets: Sonnet 97 ("How like a winter hath my absence been") William Shakespeare (1599) Scholars have long held that this poem is addressed to the lovely boy, a beautiful young aristocrat whose presence dominates most of William Shakespeare's sonnet. It begins with the speaker-poet reflecting on a time when the two men were apart. The poet likens this period of separation to winter and laments, "What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!" (l. 3). As an extended metaphor, winter is a season as well as a state of being. By contrast, the young aristocrat is decidedly unwinter-like and described, appositionally, as "the pleasure of the fleeting year" (l. 2). The poet and the young aristocrat are thus separated by space, season, and mood.
Estranged, the poet feels time pass slowly, as it does during periods of self-absorbed melancholy. His memories of the young aristocrat only worsen matters, for they recall the embodied pleasures that seem, by contrast, to make time go by so quickly. Early on, Sonnet 97 marks this temporal problem in its sound effects by juxtaposing the lengthy e sounds—associated with the aristocrat—of "thee," "fleeting," and "seen," with the alliterative d sounds—associated with the poet—of "dark," "days," and "December's." To emphasize how "old December's bareness" is "everywhere" (l. 4) perceived as painful, each of the sentences in the first quatrain ends with an exclamation mark.
That use of hyperbole prepares us for its qualification. As the second quatrain begins, readers learn that the true time of year is just before the harvest. The unexpected shift in season pits the poet's imaginary winter against the world as it exists. Here the world wins out, for the poet now looks beyond his emotions to the abundance of fall. Within two lines, he refers to its fertility six times; three of these references occur in his observation that the fields are "big with rich increase" (l. 6). Autumn is here personified as a pregnant woman.
Sonnet 97 insists that spring and summer are responsible for autumn's abundance. What is now "teeming" thus derives from the "wanton" past—spe-cifically, from the fathering effects of spring. That abundance is a condition of possibility, a harvest yet to come. The poet sees these seasons immediately, but readers must struggle to comprehend this compressed, multiseasonal temporality. Complicating matters, the second quatrain then ends with the unsettling assertion that growth is informed by death, since what the poet sees of the earth reminds him of "widowed wombs after their lords' decease" (l. 8). It is therefore premature to think that the sonnet has moved from describing the poet's melancholy to treating the world.
The third quatrain expands this despondent sense of pregnancy without birth by returning to the poet's perspective. Now, looking on agriculture, he does not anticipate its eventual harvest. Rather, its very abundance reminds him of the "hope of orphans, and unfathered fruit" (l. 10). Hope, in this metaphorical sense, is orphaned, unrealized, split off. The fruit is "unfathered" and therefore separated from its parentage. Time is poised, almost unmoving. The third quatrain offers these counterintuitive metaphors of arrested fer tility to recall the problem of yearning with which the poem began. The poet is waiting, looking ahead, with the very sense of time to come that underscores hope. Matters will not improve for him until he and the beautiful young aristocrat are reunited, since "summer and his pleasures wait on thee" (l. 11).
The concluding couplet begins where the third quatrain ends—with the conjunction of the poet's feelings and his views of nature. Now, in his eyes, the young aristocrat's absence has made "the very birds" be silent (l. 12). Correcting himself, the poet allows that if the birds do sing, they do so with little "cheer." A synecdoche for nature, the birds are thus as woeful as our poet. The personification then becomes even stronger as their dispirited singing somehow causes leaves on the trees to "look pale" (l. 14), itself a harbinger of decline and death. Sonnet 97 emphasizes absence and therefore is best linked to Sonnets 43-51. It ends by passing over the period of celebration associated with harvest and instead setting its sights on barren winter.
See also Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
Larry T. Shillock
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