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 widowed wombs after their lord’s 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.
Spring is a strange time for a break-up. ‘Rejoice!’ says the earth, ‘the world is full of hope!’. But your heart says no, no it is all over. That is how the speaker of this sonnet sees things.
If your eye skips over the word ‘like’ in the first line, you might at first think that they are addressing the spring itself. However, if we’ve been reading the other sonnets in this cycle of 154, then we know immediately that he or she is addressing the anonymous youth to whom many of the sonnets are spoken.
Comparing him to springtime allows an arresting paradox to be established at line 5. To the speaker being separated has been like winter – but actually it has been summer. There’s a further turn at line 9 when the ‘autumn big with rich increase’ (literally the harvest time) is described as a sort of emptiness. This is how everything seems to a lonely lover.
Just in case we might miss these switches they’re both clearly marked by the word ‘yet’. These changes of mind and mood – like the rising and falling sensation of the ‘increase/decease’ rhyme- are a picture of a lover’s seesawing hyper-emotions.
A lover’s obsessions seep into the language of the poem, especially into the vocabulary of sexual reproduction. ‘Autumn big with rich increase’ suggests pregnancy. Then the activities which cause pregnancy are suggested by the ‘wanton burden of the prime’ (literally ‘the results of spring’). Not that these themes are entirely happy. In the cyclical course of nature every growth of summer is also a step towards winter. In this frame of mind growth becomes a sign of decay like the ’widowed womb’ – a physical consequence of sex with a husband which is now a daily reminder of his death.
For the sonnet’s speaker all these changes of mood are all a result of the youth’s coming and going. Whilst the sun controls the seasons the youth controls everything that, for the speaker, seems real. This personal Copernican revolution is the central conceit of the poem.
Pursuing this idea leads to a very extravagant third quartet. First the speaker’s sense of emptiness is presented in hyperbolic terms. Then, slightly ludicrously, the youth is given superhuman powers. Apparently, ‘summer and his pleasures wait on thee, And thou away, the very birds are mute’. The speaker means this to demonstrate the strength of their feelings. But does its over-the-topness introduce a note of artificiality and make us doubt speaker’s sincerity?
There’s a definite sense that things might not be all they seem. The sonnet ends on a downbeat note when we’re told that if the youth is away even the ‘leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near’. This is despite the fact that the opening line suggested that the separation was now in the past. Perhaps the youth has not actually returned. Will he?
This might not be the joyful reunion it seemed at first, but a painful expression of the speaker’s wishes. It might be some sort of plea to someone who has left them, someone they miss terribly, someone they know now they cannot live without – an equivalent of the call you really shouldn’t have made to your ex.
The seasons are comforting because we know they will keep on turning. Winter arrives, but spring follows. When you know your lover will return, parting is ‘such sweet sorrow’, a mix of sadness to be apart and the happy expectation of being reunited. That’s how the speaker wants this absence to be. But in real life, people sometimes leave for good, however much we wish they wouldn’t. As we all will eventually, even whilst new springs follow behind us for new generations.