BARE RUIN’D CHOIRS

Wild geese cry
Above the frosty roofs;
Autumn’s end.

Yes, according to the old calendar, autumn is ending.  It ends with Halloween, the present day incarnation of the ancient holiday Samhain that marked the point at which the time of darkness and cold increases — the beginning of winter.

There is an interesting sonnet (#73) by Shakespeare that, in spite of its antiquated language, reveals the same universal correspondences we find in hokku.  I will give each stanza in the original, followed by a paraphrase.

But first, I want to talk about about the poet and the person to whom the poem is addressed.  Contrary to some interpretations, I do not read this poem as a love poem addressed by an old man to a young woman.  It just does not fit.  And in spite of all the publicity given youth-age Hollywood “for profit” marriages, romantically the young — let’s face it — love the young, not the old.  And as the old Victorian song goes,

‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,
For youth cannot mate with age.

That is why when I read this poem, I think of an old man addressing someone only a little younger than himself, such as might be said in an old married couple who have shared their mellowed love for many years beyond the time of burning, sensual romance.  I think it will make more sense to you as well if read that way.  So let’s give it a try.

The poet begins with an analogy:  he, in his old age, is like the season of late autumn:

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 ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

You can see in me that I am like that time of year
When yellow leaves — or few of them or none of them —
Hang on branches that shake in the cold [wind] —
Like bare ruined choirs where just a little time ago the sweet birds sang.

The poet is saying that his listener can see he is in the late autumn of life, when only a few altered traces — or maybe even none — of his youth remain.  He feels his aged appearance is like the cold bare branches of trees from which the leaves that made them attractive have nearly or all fallen.

Shakespeare uses a very effective and poetic metaphor  here:

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

He is using “choirs” here in its architectural sense, so he does not mean choirs of singers here, but rather choirs as those parts of old English churches that were furnished with wooden stalls in which the members of the choir sat.  Here is a modern image of such stalls in an architectural choir:

(Photo: http://www.heatheronhertravels.com/)

Knowing now that meaning of “choirs” here, you can picture the

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang

as the cold tree branches bereft of leaves, where earlier in the season the birds still sang sweetly.

Now he makes second analogy:  his life is like the twilight, the end of day:

In me thou seest 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, the poet says,  you see the twilight of a day that will fade in the West after sunset, its light taken away by black night — a thing akin to Death, and like Death, the night will cover everything with rest.

Then he uses a third analogy:  his life is like a weak fire that will soon go out:

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d by 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.

In me, he says, you see the glow of a fire that barely remains on the ashes it created when it was stronger — the death-bed-like ashes upon which it will extinguish itself, consumed by the same energy that previously made it burn brightly.  The same energy of life that made me strong and attractive in youth will now in old age burn the last of what remains of my life.

As Lord Byron wrote,

For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,

And the poet finishes it all by saying,

You see all of these signs of aging and death approaching, and they only make your love for me stronger, because they tell you that soon I shall die and you must say goodbye to all our years together, because I shall be no more.

We often find in hokku the equivalency between autumn and human aging, just as we find the equivalency between twilight and age.  The difference, however, is that in Western poetry for the most part — as here in Shakespeare — these equivalencies are openly expressed.  In hokku, however, twilight and autumn are not symbols of aging, or analogies or similes of aging — they are merely things that happen in Nature.  Yet seeing them happen, they evoke in us the equivalencies, even though they are not openly expressed.  Instead, we say that age is “reflected” in twilight and autumn, meaning the equivalency is much more subtle — unspoken in hokku, but expressed openly and clearly in English poetry.

3 thoughts on “BARE RUIN’D CHOIRS

  1. Hi HOKKU, Seems that we are thinking about the same things “this time of year’ Here is an entry that I posted on my blog last week. I found your comment also very interesting. Shakespeare never wears thin. Monday, October 21, 2019 THIS TIME OF YEAR IN THE BUCKET *One of our favorite sonnets by Shakespeare seems perfect for this time of the year and this season of our lives.*

    *Sonnet 73: That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold* *by William Shakespeare* *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 perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,* *To love that well which thou must leave ere long.*

    *That was the first read through. Let us look at this sonnet more closely.* Shakespeare makes perfect use of the sonnet form of three quatrains ( 4 line stanzas) and an ending couplet (2 lines that rhyme} *Sonnet 73: That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold* *by William Shakespeare*

    *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.*

    *This first quatrain explains what time of year we are talking about. Autumn and in fact late autumn. Not the time of brilliant color as we have now in October, but more like November when most of the trees are bare of leaves and the song birds have retreated to warmer climes. In fact for him the bare revealed tree branches become choirs that once were filled with song. IT is a cold and emptied out scene.*

    *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.*

    *This second quatrain now describes what time of day the speaker is seeing in himself and we are seeing. It is twilight–not sunset but after the sun has set and has faded. Black night is almost here. So again it is the lateness of the day–just before the dark– and the word Death is invoked for the first time- and night is seen as a harbinger of Death that will end every life as Night ends every day “in rest.”*

    *Sonnets besides having a structure of three quatrains and a couplet also have an 8-6 split in their 14 lines. The first eight lines should lay out and exemplify a problem, and the last six lines should attempt to suggest a solution or a counter argument or attitude. SO this next section must somehow turn the argument around.*

    *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.*

    *And the third quatrain is equal to that task. Abruptly the poem sees a glow like a fire in his own self even if he is in the late Autumn and the last daylight of his life. And what kind of a glow is it? It is the glow of red hot coals as they turn toward ash and are at their hottest.* *He insists that his present day aging self still has burning inside even if hidden by ravages of age and time the heat of his younger passions. They have not died with time they will only expire with death. The death bed of passion is like a hearth filled with glowing ashes. The emotions that fired him as a youth still consume him and warm him.*

    *And the final couplet literally puts the cap on this argument with love and time.*

    *This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,* *To love that well which thou must leave ere long.*

    *Here he turns to the imagined listener and /or reader who has been in every part of the poem–his beloved –and you and me.*

    *He insists that his lover has shared these perceptions and that this sense of something about to leave has the effect of making these last moments together even more precious and has given their love a new intensity. Did you notice that two segments of the sonnet begins with the same three words? –“In me thou”*

    *This sonnet is fiercely honest about the leaving but refuses the loss–it refuses to be diminished and in fact insists on an increase of devotion when we understand the shortness of the time we have left together. It also creates an astonishing transformation and unification of the lover and the beloved with those three words–IN ME THOU. They have an unbreakable unity. Those two have become one forever.*

    Posted by Norma Margaret

  2. Ashley

    Seeing geese gather on the shores of Strangford Lough is one of the signs of autumn and now the noisy flocks begin to settle in readiness to overwinter here.

  3. Beautiful daoku, David! A couple of weeks ago I was taking pictures of hummingbirds in my backyard and I heard the loudest sound. It was a flock of geese flying toward me; they flew right over my head! They were so loud…telling other species to get up and get going!

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