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. 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, Consum'd 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.
Shakespeare and Whitehead on love and impermanence
Sonnet 73, one of William Shakespeare's most famous sonnets, focuses on the theme of aging. The poem's narrator, whether Shakespeare himself or not, addresses a beloved friend with whom he shares mutual affection. Each of the three quatrains (four-line stanzas) contains a metaphor through which the young friend perceives the aging poet. The poet is seen as Autumn, in the autumn of his life; as the passing of a day, existing in twilight after the sun has set; and as the dying of a fire, glowing as embers atop the ashes of youth. The poem evokes both sadness and intimacy, arising from the awareness that something is passing or will soon pass away.
The final two lines serve as a connective tissue, emphasizing that the passage of time brings the lovers closer:
"This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long."
The poem does not specify who is loving whom. It may be the poet loving his young friend, the young friend loving the poet, or both. Nonetheless, the essence lies in the understanding that when we know something is impermanent, our love for it becomes even stronger. With an end in sight, whatever it may be - whether old age, a journey to another land, the end of an era, or the end of a relationship - our knowledge of its passing intensifies our love. Sonnet 73 beautifully captures the encounter with impermanence. However, the poem doesn't explain why the knowledge of impermanence evokes such strong love; it presents this correlation as a heartfelt observation of love's nature rather than a metaphysical treatise.
Interestingly, Whitehead, too, struggled with this correlation. While he embraced the fluency of the world and the unfolding of novelty through temporal processes, he also grappled with the loss of immediacy that accompanies transitions. He referred to this loss as the ultimate evil in life, as the past fades and objectification (remembering the past) involves elimination.
The ultimate evil in the temporal world is deeper than any specific evil. It lies in the fact that the past fades, that time is a ‘perpetual perishing.’ Objectification involves elimination. The present fact has not the past fact with it in any full immediacy. The process of time veils the past below distinctive feeling. There is a unison of becoming among things in the present. Why should there not be novelty without loss of this direct unison of immediacy among things? (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality)
Whitehead's thoughts lead to the question of whether there might be a novelty that doesn't require the loss of immediacy. Could the strong love between the narrator and the loved one in Shakespeare's sonnet be preserved, even as the world is perpetually perishing? One possibility proposed is that while immediacy perishes on Earth, it may endure in an ultimate Consciousness that encompasses the entire temporal world - that is, in God.
This raises the question of whether belief in God, as a receptacle and preserver of events in the world, undermines the wisdom of Sonnet 73. Is it possible to enjoy the strong love that arises from recognizing impermanence while having faith that some essence of love is retained in God, even as it vanishes on Earth? This question is where Whitehead's philosophy meets Shakespeare's sonnet.
One approach is to accept that everything perishes, and nothing is permanent. Embracing non-attachment to all things becomes a more realistic option, as attachment inherently seeks permanence and an enduring significance beyond the moment. If we choose this option, we best avoid the pain that comes with love and be islands unto ourselves. Emotional anesthesia seems preferable to suffering.
Whitehead offers a different approach. He lifts up the possibility that immediacy might be preserved amid the passing of time: "Why should there not be novelty without loss." Here we are invited to enter into strong love and fervent attachment, loving even what fades away, trusting that something of the love endures eternally even amid the fading.
Still, we cannot escape the existential necessity of accepting impermanence. In the midst of attachment, there must also be a letting go of things as they pass away. Sonnet 73 underscores this truth not only in relationships with other people but also in our connections to ourselves and the natural world. Everything, including the hills, rivers, trees, and stars, experiences the autumns of life, eventually turning into ashes. Even stars come to an end. And certainly we, too, come to an end on earth, as do those we love.
Shakespeare and Whitehead invite us to recognize that love grows stronger as we come to terms with impermanence, and, at the same time, to hope that something of what we love survives even in its passing.
What survives without fading may not the people who love and are loved. It may instead be the love itself, which becomes part of the divine life and is recycled back to earth, again and again. Let Whitehead have the last word:
What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion— the fellow-sufferer who understands. (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality)
Shakespeare's Sonnets in General
BBC, In Our Time
A Discussion of Sonnet 73
Bonus: If We Were Vampires
The theme of Jason Isbell's song "If We Were Vampires" revolves around the idea of mortality and the fleeting nature of life and love. The song, released in 2017 as part of his album "The Nashville Sound," contemplates the impermanence of existence and how the awareness of our mortality adds depth and urgency to our experiences.
The lyrics explore the concept that if humans were immortal like vampires, the love they share might lose its intensity and significance. The limited time they have together makes every moment more precious, as they are aware that their time together is limited.