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 death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
The sonnet is the third in the group of four which reflect on the onset of age. It seems that it is influenced partly by lines from Ovid's Metamorphoses, in the translation by William Golding. However the verbal parallels are somewhat sparse. Shakespeare's presentation is much more individualistic and cannot easily be attributed to any one mould or influence. It is worth noting that, if the sonnet were written in 1600, Shakespeare would only have been 36, and it is quite probable that it was written before that date. An age that we would not consider to be the threshold of old age. Of course the group of four sonnets, of which this is the third, begins with a putative skirmish with death and finality, so that it is in a sense merely thematic within that group to discuss the autumn of one's years, which will shortly lead to parting and separation. We can therefore allow that it uses some poetic licence in painting a gloomy portrayal of the withered tree.
Nevertheless it is slightly surprising that the statements are so definite and uncompromising. This is how he is now, it is not some prognostication of decay, or a brief glimpse forwards to some imaginary time. The picture is more like that of age on his death-bed, of the autumn tree, of the onset of night, of the actuality of dying. The thought seems closer to the anonymous 16th. century poem
As ye came from the holy land
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?
which becomes a lament for love's faithlessness as age comes on.
She hath left me here alone,
All alone, as unknown,
Who sometime did me lead with herself,
And me loved as her own.
What's the cause that she leaves you alone
And a new way doth take,
That sometime did love you as her own,
And her joy did you make?
I have loved her all my youth,
But now old, as you see:
Love likes not the falling fruit,
Nor the withered tree.
Some lines from The Passionate Pilgrim of 1599, which are often attributed to Shakespeare, are also relevant. (See below). Perhaps Shakespeare was offering this sonnet as a charm to ward off rejection. Perhaps the rejection was already evident and this is just a historical analysis of what he already knows to be the truth, a deja vu of love's forgetfulness. Or perhaps he genuinely felt that age had stolen a march on him.
From The Passionate Pilgrim.
Crabbed age and youth
Cannot live together:
Youth is full of pleasaunce,
Age is full of care;
Youth like summer morn,
Age like winter weather;
Youth like summer brave,
Age like winter bare.
The 1609 Quarto Version
THat time of yeeare thou maiſt in me behold,
When yellow leaues,or none,or fewe doe hange
Vpon thoſe boughes which ſhake againſt the could,
Bare rn'wd quiers,where late the ſweet birds ſang.
In me thou ſeeſt the twi-light of ſuch day,
As after Sun-ſet fadeth in the Weſt,
Which by and by blacke night doth take away,
Deaths ſecond ſelfe that ſeals vp all in reſt.
In me thou ſeeſt the glowing of ſuch fire,
That on the aſhes of his youth doth lye,
As the death bed,whereon it muſt expire,
Conſum'd with that which it was nurriſht by.
This thou perceu'ſt,which makes thy loue more ſtrong,
To loue that well,which thou muſt leaue ere long.