Shakespeare’s romantic poem, Sonnet 97, is as relevant today as it was when it was first written more than 400 years ago. The Bard takes a poignant look at winter, using it to symbolise the passing of time and his separation from a loved one.
The great English playwright and poet wrote Sonnet 97 in 1609, when he was 45 years old. At the time, he had been married to Anne Hathaway (a local girl from Stratford-upon-Avon) for 27 years. It isn’t clear whether he had been separated from the mother of his children and based the poem on his own experiences.
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Shakespeare’s lost years
Historians have referred to the period between 1585 and 1592 as the “lost years”, as there are no concrete details of Shakespeare’s whereabouts. Biographers have attempted to explain where he was in various ways.
Biographer Nicholas Rowe suggested Shakespeare had to flee Stratford because he had been caught poaching deer on the local squire Thomas Lucy’s estate and was threatened with prosecution! Another more likely story is that he went to London to try to launch a theatrical career, but was at the bottom of the show business ladder and there were no records of his efforts.
Other scholars have suggested he became a schoolmaster in Lancashire, working for an Alexander Hoghton. There is no real evidence to support any of the theories, but it would appear he had been separated from his wife and their three children for some reason.
Truth or fiction?
If it was true that he had fled Stratford to escape prosecution for deer poaching, it would indeed have been an enforced separation that may have inspired Sonnet 97. The poem is one of 154 sonnets written by Shakespeare, three of which lamented his separation from a loved one.
Historians have long speculated on why Shakespeare lamented being separated from the person he loved. Some have claimed he was actually writing to another person, other than his wife. In truth, there isn’t enough documented evidence to say one way or another why he wrote Sonnet 97.
The mystery behind the sonnet only adds to its timeless appeal and Shakespeare’s vivid description of the emptiness of his life and of winter.
The poem begins with the poignant lines, “How like a winter hath my absence been from thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!” – suggesting that the time spent with his loved one was his only pleasure as the time flew by. He continues to describe winter, saying, “What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen! What old December’s bareness everywhere!”
He speaks of nature and describes how even the birds are silent. “The very birds are mute, or if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer,” – meaning they are singing in a sorrowful way. He adds that the birds’ singing is so sad “that leaves look pale” as they listen to the sorrowful tunes.
The seasons are often used as a metaphor for the passing of time in sonnets. The bleakness of winter is as an indication of how much the narrator misses the company of his loved one.
Literary critics suggest that when a person spends time apart from their beloved in the summer, when nature is filled with the fruits of the season, even this world of abundance feels bare. Hence spending time apart in winter becomes unbearable, when nature itself is bare.
A number of poets have attempted to translate Sonnet 97 into modern language to give it a more contemporary feel, showing students that it is just as relevant today. A modern translation begins, “My separation from you has felt just like winter,” and continues, “The days have seemed very dark and everything has been as barren, as in December.”
Shakespeare produced many of his best-known works in his later years and was still writing on a regular basis until 1613. However, no plays or sonnets were attributed to him after this date.
He remained married to Anne until his death in April 1616, at the age of 52. His widow outlived him by seven years. They had three children: Susanna, Hamnet and Judith.
Shakespeare became known as one of the world’s greatest dramatists after his death and his work is still relevant today in the 21st century, featuring on many a school curriculum.
A cold winter’s day
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