‘Sonnet 97,’ also known as ‘How like a winter hath my absence been,’ is number ninety-seven of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote. Sonnets 1-126 of this series belong to Shakespeare’s famous Fair Youth sequence. These poems are all devoted, in one way or another, to a young, beautiful man. There has been a great deal of speculation about who this young man could possibly be, but no single identity has ever been decided upon.
In this sonnet lovers of Shakespeare’s poetry will find familiar images and themes. The poet once again alludes to a connection between the Fair Youth and the sun, warmth, and light. He also uses images of nature, such as birds and the seasons, to depict the difference between the youth’s presence and absence.
Sonnet 97 William ShakespeareHow like a winter hath my absence beenFrom 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 widow'd wombs after their lords' decease:Yet this abundant issue seemed to meBut 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.
Explore Sonnet 97
The speaker describes for the young man what it’s like when he isn’t there. When the two are separated, the speaker says, it’s like an infinite winter (even if the season is actually summer). Nothing beautiful seems to be so, nor do the birds sing cheerfully as they usually do. In fact, when they do sing, it is melancholy and depressing. Only when the youth returns to do things change.
‘Sonnet 97 ’ by William Shakespeare is a single stanza poem that is made up of fourteen lines. It is a good example of the English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan). This form requires that the sonnet be made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines.
‘Sonnet 97’ follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABABCDCDEFEFGG and it is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The last two lines (known as a couplet) are a rhyming pair. They often, but not always, bring with them a turn or “volta” (in Italian) in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 97 ’. These include but are not limited to examples of alliteration, caesura, and simile. The latter, a simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, the comparison of the Fair Youth’s absence to “winter” in the first lines.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. There is a good example in the third line of the poem. It reads: “What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!”
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “dark days” in line three as well as “widowed wombs” in line eight.
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!
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 97,’ the speaker begins by comparing through a simile what his separation from the Fair Youth has been like. This young man, who he cares for more than anything else in the world, is at the center of his life. He describes how being apart from him as been “like a winter”. It is the youth who makes the year a “pleasure” like the warmer seasons. Without him, there is nothing but a freezing landscape and “dark days”. This is yet another poem that compares the youth to the sun, warmth, or light.
To the speaker, it has been the most “baren” of Decembers everywhere since he’s been away from this young man.
And yet this time removed was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widowed wombs after their lords’ decease.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 97’, the speaker goes on to say that in reality, it has only been very little time since they’ve been apart. In fact, it was summer that separated them and then “autumn.”. There is an interesting moment in this section of the poem where the poet compares the “prime,” or the springtime, to the birth of a child. This particular child was born after the father died. The spring “seed” was planted in the “widowed womb” and is born later on. He uses personification to depict spring as a father to autumn.
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.
Unfortunately, because the speaker is tied so tightly to the Fair Youth, he is unable to see the fruit as anything other than orphaned. It is “unfathered” and sorrowful because the pleasures of summer depending on the youth’s presence. When the youth is away, it’s not just the speaker who notices. In fact, the entire world reacts. He describes how even “the very birds are mute” when the youth is not there. Alternatively, he adds in the concluding couplet, if they do sing it is “so dull a cheer” that the entire landscape is made even more depressing because of it. The leaves turn paler and the dread of winter only increases.