‘From you have I been absent in the spring’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen line sonnet, also known as Sonnet 98. It is one of 154 sonnets written by the poet. The poem is structured in the form which has come to be synonymous with the poet’s name. It is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines.
The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This 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.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. In the case of ‘From you have I been absent in the spring’ the shift informs the reader and the listener, to whom the lines are directed, that the speaker was forced to play with his lover’s shadow in his absence.
Sonnet 98 is a part of the “Fair Youth” sequence of poems, in these poems the speaker expresses his love and adoration for a young man. In this case, as with sonnets 97 and 99, the speaker is separate from the man and is longing to return to him.
The poem begins with the speaker telling his lover that because the two are separate, he has been unable to enjoy the spring season. The days have been lovely, he admits, so much so that the gloomy god Saturn played with the month of April. Despite this fact he has not been tempted outside to enjoy the sun or pick flowers.
When the speaker looked outside he only saw imitations of his lover. His patterns of beauty were everywhere and rather than comfort, this fact only brought the speaker more pain. The poem concludes with the speaker describing how when he did go outside, he was only playing with the lover’s shadow.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
In the first line of ‘From you have I been absent in the spring’ the speaker is addressing a young man, the “Fair Youth” to whom a series of sonnets were devoted. He states very clearly that he has been absent from this person “in the spring”. The next three lines discuss what the spring was like, or at least how the speaker should’ve perceived it. As the second quatrain reveals, Shakespeare’s speaker was not able to adequately appreciate the spring because of the separation.
In the second line he refers to the month of April as “proud-pied” this means that the month was proud in its exhibition of its colours. In this case, he refers to the month as a “he,” and “he” was “dressed in all his trim”. His clothes were of the finest variety.
These factors came together to make the season seem youthful, as if the very spirit of youth had been embodied in the colours and textures of the world. The season was especially remarkable, so much so that Saturn was happy and laughing with April. In this context the name “Saturn” refers to the ancient Roman god, also known as Cronos, from Greek mythology. He is commonly associated with sluggishness and gloominess. Therefore his laughter and leaping is all the more notable.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
In the next set of four lines of ‘From you have I been absent in the spring’ the speaker tells the young man that despite all this beauty and pleasure he was not tempted to take part. The birds and the sweet smells of different flowers did not influence him to feel more optimistically. They could not inspire him to embrace the season or go out and pick flowers “where they grew”.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.
He goes on, telling the young man that as he might’ve done in another year, he did not marvel and take pleasure in the whiteness of the lily flower. The white color is contrasted in the ninth line of the poem with the “deep vermilion in the rose”. Neither the purity of the lily, nor the passion of the rose could bring him any sort of pleasure. In line ten the speaker lays out very clearly why this was the case.
He knew objectively, that the flowers were beautiful and sweet. But, he also knew that their sweetness had one source, the intended listener of the poem. The “Fair Youth” to whom the speaker is talking.
The last two lines of the quatrain reinforce this fact, and tell the listener that his patterns are those from which nature takes its inspiration. When the speaker looks out at the roses and lilies, as well as the entire month of April, and its birds, he can only see the beauty of his lost lover.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
The last two lines of ‘From you have I been absent in the spring’ are a rhyming couplet. In them, the speaker tells the young man that because of their separation, the spring never felt like anything more than winter. The only thing the speaker could do in their time apart is play with his lover’s reflections, or his“ shadow[s]” in the flowers of spring.