We have to wait for just the right day, and unfortunately for an English teacher trying to work with some sort of course plan, I cannot identify that day until it arrives on the lawn, buried in an assortment of leaves.
In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare asks us to look out into autumn, a particular moment in autumn, mind you, in order to see inside the heart of his speaker—a neat trick, particularly in iambic pentameter. The speaker begins matter-of-factly: “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.”
Among the reasons I love Sonnet 73 is that I remember reading it at different stages in my life. Indeed, we must bring the context of our own lives to poems we read: we cannot avoid it. Edward Hirsh notes in his bestselling book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry that, “reading poetry is an act of reciprocity,” meaning the relationship of poet and reader is, “a highly concentrated and passionate exchange… .” Just as Shakespeare uses this “exchange” to challenge us to look outside to the natural world in order to see inside his speaker, so too does great poetry challenge us to look out into the world in order to see inside ourselves or, perhaps even better, inside something greater than ourselves. The truth is both simple and profound: I am different than I was when I first encountered these fourteen lines; however, the lines will be the same as “long as men can breathe or eyes can see” (Sonnet 18).
John Fleming, who is Louis W. Fairchild Professor Emeritus at Princeton, echoed this point in a recent blog post, in which he reviewed this summer’s production of King Lear in New York: “The reason you cannot step into the same river twice is because the river is always changing. The reason you cannot read the same book twice is because you are always changing.” (http://gladlylernegladlyteche.blogspot.com/2011/07/ripeness-is-most-of-it.html ) Fleming and I share an Alma Mater, Sewanee-The University of the South. A Rhodes Scholar, Fleming spent his career at Princeton where for many years he was English Department Chair. A couple of years ago he spent a day at Hawken School where I was Upper School Director, and I had the pleasure of seeing him not only as a scholar but also a master classroom teacher working with our ninth grade Humanities students. In his most recent post, entitled “Grace Abounding to the Least of Bloguistes,” Fleming reflects on Charles Grovsner Osgood’s Poetry as a Means of Grace. That post can be found at http://gladlylernegladlyteche.blogspot.com/2011/07/grace-abounding-to-least-of-bloguistes.html . Reading his blog leaves me envious of the students who for decades populated his classroom.
Hirsch argues, “perhaps poetry exists because it carries necessary information that cannot be communicated in any other way.” Here, Hirsch makes a statement not only about the relevance of poetry, but more importantly, about the necessity of poetry—it can reveal what no other form of communication can. To place this statement in the context of our sonnet, we understand some things about the speaker in Sonnet 73 that we cannot come to understand about another human being in any other way, or even more notable, we can understand something about ourselves or others that we could not apprehend without this poem.
A number of years ago now, Rick Chess, Literature Professor at UNC-Asheville and recipient of the 2002 North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence, led leading a reading and discussion series at the West Asheville Library as a complement to Edward Hirsch’s visit to Asheville to discuss his book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. Chess, a fine poet himself, expertly guided discussions of poems, including a number by Hirsch. Often at the heart of the discussion of an individual poem was the idea that poetry can provide us a kind of insight that no other means of communication can. Hirsch quotes Percy Shelley to emphasize this point; Shelley states in his Defense of Poetry that the language of poetry “is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.” In my course, Sonnet 73 provides an apt platform upon which my students can discover that truth for themselves.
It is a confluence of reasons that brings me back to Sonnet 73 today not the least of which are the entries I referenced to John Fleming’s blog. Interestingly, my wife will be teaching King Lear this fall at Oglethorpe University, and she has asked me to stand in for her one day and provide a lecture on the play, so Fleming’s blog about Lear arrived at the right time. There are other reasons as well, ones that are harder to articulate. Recently, I attended a funeral service at Sewanee, and during the service in All Saints Chapel and later at the graveside, I glimpsed a number of the professors I had when I was a student in the 80s. For me Sonnet 73 was a natural resting place for my reflections about that day even though the weather was steamy mid-July not that of “yellow leaves, or few, or none.”
The final reason I have stumbled back to Sonnet 73 is that I am making a transition to a new school and new town this summer. The boxes are still largely waiting to be unpacked, as my wife, my daughter and I stand in this strange middle place not having fully arrived in the new place though we have definitely left the old one. When we are between one stage of life and another, it somehow makes sense that we would reflect on things that are outside of time, such as Sonnet 73. The poem remains even though so much else seems to be moving, vanishing or appearing before our eyes. As a result, there is comfort in Sonnet 73 even though the poem itself captures the transience of our lives.
One day (many years into the future, I hope), in a moment as brief as late Fall, I will be the perfect speaker for Sonnet 73. I will be the embodiment of autumn, and my students might just see “that time of year…in me”—but not yet. Hirsch reminds all of us that the poem will forever be what Osip Mandelstam calls “the message in the bottle,” waiting to provide the solace of sound and meaning even when at last “that time of year” is beheld in us.
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 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.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed 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.
[Some portions of this post are reused from a piece I wrote for the Asheville Citizen Times around 2003].
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