sonnetXCVII

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 widow'd 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.

This and the next two sonnets are interconnected, and describe a period of separation, perhaps one which has come to an end and may be looked back on, as a time removed from which the poet is glad to have escaped. A strong contrast runs throughout between presence and absence, summer and winter, pleasure and pain. Wherever the youth is, it is summer or fruitful autumn, wherever he is not, it is freezing winter. The rich imagery of the natural world somehow endows the youth with a supernatural beauty, and one begins to understand why he exercises such a fascination over all those who know him. To a certain extent therefore the poem is positive and serene, because, despite the negative imagery of winter, it holds out the hope of being part of summer's pleasure, being with the youth, and being in the same place at last where all things beautiful live.

The 1609 Quarto Version

HOw like a Winter hath my abſence beene
From thee,the pleaſure of the fleeting yeare?
What freezings haue I felt,what darke daies ſeene?
What old Decembers bareneſſe euery where?
And yet this time remou'd was ſommers time,
The teeming Autumne big with ritch increaſe,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widdowed wombes after their Lords deceaſe:
Yet this aboundant iſſue ſeem'd to me,
But hope of Orphans,and vn-fathered fruite,
For Sommer and his pleaſures waite on thee,
And thou away,the very birds are mute.
   Or if they ſing,tis with ſo dull a cheere,
   That leaues looke pale,dreading the Winters neere.

Commentary

1. How like a winter hath my absence been
a winter - to a large extent the seasonal descriptions here are metaphoric, illustrative of the soul's dark winter, but using the imagery of an actual winter to enhance the effect.
absence = separation, time of being away.
2. From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
From thee - One expects this to be the fresh start of a new line, especially as all the other lines of the poem are end stopped. But the fact that it is so clearly a continuation of an unfinished first line, and forces itself upon ones consciousness as if it were an afterthought more important than the forethought, seems to emphasise the absence of the beloved, and emphasises the thee of the sonnet, the beloved to whom it is addressed, as if his presence after the freezing winter suddenly makes itself felt as a new spring and summer.

the pleasure of the fleeting year = you who make the swiftly passing year pleasurable; you who are all that is a source of pleasure in the passing year. fleeting year - perhaps the overall swiftness of the year is contrasted with the apparent endlessness of the cold and barren winter.

3. What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
Because of his separation from his beloved, he has felt the days to be freezing and dark, like winter days. His soul is frostbitten and plunged in the darkness of winter.
4. What old December's bareness everywhere!
old December - probably suggested by the fact that the year was considered old by the time the last months came round. We still see out the old year, and let in the new. Compare also:

Sir, the year growing ancient, not yet on summer's death, Nor on the birth of trembling winter. WT.IV.4.79-80.

5. And yet this time removed was summer's time;
this time removed = the time which has only recently passed, (in which you and I were separated). A time separated from the present time (See OED.2.b.).
6. The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,

the teeming autumn = fruitful autumn. to teem is to give birth (often prolifically), to spawn, to be potentially very fruitful. Cf.:
This blessed plot, this earth, this Realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal Kings
. R2.II.1.51-2.
The following images all suggest a vast burgeoning of nature's resources. big = pregnant, swollen as a result of being pregnant. To be big with (or big of) child was a common expression,

 

.................and his gentle lady,
Big of this gentleman our theme, deceased
As he was born
. Cym.I.1.38-40.

rich increase = abundant progeny. There are many uses of 'increase' (as a noun) recorded in connection with multiplication of plants or animals by breeding. (See OED 2.c, 6.) See also the song in the Tempest:

Earthes increase, Foison plenty,
 
Barns and Garners never empty. Tem.IV.1.110-1.

Since summer of the previous line seems to be described here, it is clear that summer in this poem covers the entire period of warm weather from late spring to harvest time.

 

7. Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Bearing = carrying, as when pregnant. Giving birth. The two meanings overlap.
the wanton burden = the burden of pregnancy caused by former wantonness and profligacy.
the prime = the springtime.
8. Like widow'd wombs after their lords' decease:
widowed wombs = wombs of women who have been widowed after they have conceived.
after their lord's decease = after their husband's have died. In Shakespeare's time lord often was equivalent to husband, and it is still current in the phrase 'my lord and master'. (OED.4.) Cf.:
Tell these head-strong women
What duty they doe owe their lords and husbands.
TS.V.2.131-2.
Shakespeare also uses 'lord and master' in Lear:
...........Witness the world, that I create thee here
My lord and master.
KL.V.3.78-9.

Nevertheless the use of the term here is suggestive of aristocratic widowhood, for which the mourning would be more sumptuous and extravagant than for an ordinary loss. The only other two occasions on which 'lord' is used in the sonnets are in contexts of aristocratic deference.

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage 26

They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
94

9. Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
abundant issue = plenteous and overflowing fruit, birth, production etc. The typical symbol of the autumn was the cornucopia, a horn overflowing with fruit and flowers and all the wealth of the harvest.
10. But hope of orphans, and unfathered fruit;
orphans - a child who had lost only one parent was also called an orphan.
unfathered = having lost a father.
fruit = offspring. The double image of autumn's increase and the birth of children is blended into one.
11. For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
summer and his pleasures - summer is personified here, perhaps as a reveller, perhaps as a god of plenty, with courtiers (pleasures) and other maskers and revellers. The typical classical image was that of Bacchus and his attendant revellers. his = its.

wait on thee = are your servants, wait for your commands, attend on you. With a suggestion also of 'wait for you to return', otherwise they cannot be merry and enjoy the bounteous summer.

12. And, thou away, the very birds are mute:
thou away = you being away, you being absent.
the very birds are mute = even the birds are silent. The reality is that birds do not sing much in the autumn, a fact mentioned in Sonnet 102
As Philomel in summer's front doth sing
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days,

but the poetic fiction here demands that the birds stop singing, or seem to stop singing, because the beloved youth is absent.
13. Or, if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer,
'tis with so dull a cheer = they sing in such dull, drab and gloomy tones. Originally cheer meant face, then expression of the face. Hence disposition, frame of mind. (OED.1,2a.).
14. That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near.

leaves look pale - the leaves turn pale with fear, knowing that they must soon fall off and die. The suggestion is of a premature winter, which will strip the trees bare, and return to the bareness and barrenness of 'old December'.
the winter's near = that the winter is near. Possibly 'the nearness of winter'.