September 27, 2013

A Sonnet for Autumn

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It’s That Time Of Year. I loathe that expression. Every time I hear it I want to shriek, “Oh My God, think of something original!” Every day is That Time Of Year. It was probably a fresher phrase–then again, who knows?– when Shakespeare used it to begin this sonnet:

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or few, or none do hang
Upon the 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 nourished by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

There. I wrote that from memory except for the commas. I set myself a little project last May to memorize four of Shakespeare’s sonnets and this is the last, coinciding with the actual time of year when yellow leaves, or few, or none do hang upon the boughs which shake against the cold; bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang. The warm, dry summer that we in Seattle enjoyed this year made an about face right at the Equinox, almost at the moment that I emerged, naked, from my ritual baptism in the Pacific Ocean last week.

I don’t memorize easily any more—too old—but making myself labor at it has its rewards, one of which is that I’ve gotten better at it. As in singing, I don’t know a song until I can cut loose from the written page. That’s when I get inside the music and the text, and start to mine it for all its nuance and delight.

A Shakespeare sonnet looks like an impossible pile of words, many of them archaic, with syntax that would get you flunked from an English class. When I attempt to memorize, the hardest part is getting the correct linking words: as, that, and which. If I get one of those little words out of place, I lose the whole line. Memorizing makes me grasp for any structure, image, rhyme, or syllable count that guides me into the next line or quatrain. It gives me a reason to think about structure, image, rhyme, and syllable count in a way that would make an English teacher’s heart soar. Free of charge, I’ll tip you off to pronounce ruined as one syllable or the line doesn’t scan.

I already knew the first quatrain by heart from years ago when memorizing was easy. I actually think I learned it from the “News from Lake Woebegone” when Garrison Keillor says: “That time of year in Minnesota thou may’st behold when yellow leaves or few, or none, do hang upon the boughs that shake against the cold; bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” I had it on an old cassette tape I listened to so many times I could quote whole hunks of the “news.”

Eventually I noticed that the next two quatrains of the sonnet began with the same opening: “In me thou see’st. . .” Then it was a matter of finding mental images. The first one was easy. I finished memorizing the poem while spending four days at the ocean where I sat on the deck at twilight and watched first the sun set, and then black night take away the day. The image I needed for the third quatrain organized itself around the word glowing: a glowing coal on a death-bed of ashes, soon to be consumed by what was its own blazing fire.

Clearly Shakespeare wrote the sonnet when he considered himself to be in the autumn of his life, which is where I place myself. I have said many times that I love being middle-aged. This is the richest and most alive time of my life. My life glows in me in a way it didn’t when presumably there was a bigger fire. I have a sense of possibility that isn’t less exciting because it’s tempered with experience. In fact it’s preferable to being inflated with the ignorance of my young adulthood.

Still I look at the world with a sweet sadness. I sometimes wonder how much longer I will be here. I am comfortable with not knowing if I will know anything on the other side of death. To me, that is the essence of faith: to surrender to not knowing. It’s what allows me to feel my glow now. And on this end of life, I am finding new ways to love well what I must leave ere long.

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