This is the first of a pair of sonnets in which the beloved’s absence is compared to the seasons. Shakespeare here evokes winter, summer, autumn, summer and winter, and in that order – as though longing for the beloved disrupts a natural sequence of time. Autumn is ‘teeming’ with fruit which, because of the beloved’s absence, is compared to ‘widowed wombs after their lords’ decease’. This image suggests either a male or a female addressee depending on our interpretation: male because of the comparison of the beloved’s absence to a dead lord; female because ‘lords’ decease’ could refer to how the poet himself is feeling for an absent female’s womb and yet unborn ‘fruit’. I love the way birdsong breaks into the end of the sonnet, at first ‘mute’ but then extending to a ‘dull cheer’, a sound which also has an effect on how the poet sees things. The phrase ‘old December’s bareness everywhere’ has been much on my mind lately.
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen,
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime
Like widowed wombs after their lords’ decease.
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans, and unfathered fruit,
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.
Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 97 read by Alex Whiteley, a student on the Shakespeare and Creativity course at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.
You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.