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 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 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.
- by William Shakespeare
Last week, I wrote about Jim Harrison’s poem “Older Love”, which presents a man smoking into the fireplace to avoid disturbing his asthmatic wife, and the heat he faces from the embers calling to mind the passion that has “wandered from love back into the natural world”. In my analysis of that poem, I did not mention the most famous pairing of embers, ashes and passion in the English language, but it was not an oversight.
What is the role of allusion in poetry?
Before we get to that, though, let’s enjoy the poem itself. I fell in love with this poem on a frosty Sunday morning in 1981 or so in Schenectady, New York. My fiance, my roommate and I walked to a church downtown, eschewing the artificially “hip” campus services and avoiding the magisterial mega-Mass at the largest church in town. Instead, we walked to a tiny church in the older section of town, where a young priest we knew through the nuclear freeze movement said Mass.
On the way there, we saw a phenomenon I have seen only a few other times. As the sun rose in our urban environment, the rays worked their way slowly down the trees, blocked from complete exposure by walls, homes and buildings. And, as the sun hit the tops of the trees, it melted the frost and broke the final bond holding the uppermost leaves to the trees – releasing a shower of yellow leaves, but only from the parts shone upon. It was a riotous display of color, as, on that very morning, at that very time, the trees of Schenectady dropped their leaves branch by branch, as the sun reached them. Yellow leaves, or none, or few, hung upon the uppermost branches on that brisk morning.
When it came time for the sermon, Father I’veSadlyForgottenHisName paused at the pulpit, pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket, and slowly read Sonnet 73. At its close, he stood there for a few moments and allowed the poem to sink in, and that was his homily for the day. Our nation had entered the Reagan years, the Nuclear Clock was ticking, and winter was on its way to Schenectady. It was a somber moment, but we were reminded to avoid despair, and love more strongly, “To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
In this poem, Shakespeare addresses his awareness of approaching death. The images shrink from a season (“that time of year”) to a day (“twilight of such day”) to a moment (the expiration of the fire). The images collapse in upon themselves, leading one to an almost claustrophobic sense that is only partially relieved by the directive to enjoy what will not last. The point is not to allow your love to dwindle in the collapse of time, but to allow that perception to “make thy love more strong”. Ultimately, the poem is grimly hopeful and s celebration of life in the face of oncoming winter.
And now back to the allusion issue.
You did not need to have Shakespeare’s image in mind to appreciate Harrison’s poem. When Harrison wrote of a man facing the embers of a fire, it was complete in and of itself. To appreciate the poem, you did not need a footnote intruding into it, reminding you of what Shakespeare had to say about embers and passion.
But, if the image did call to mind Shakespeare’s sonnet, you probably appreciated the poem a little more deeply. The poem gains a tiny bit more depth when you compare Shakespeare’s self-centered narrator to Harrison’s self-sacrificing protagonist. The poem becomes part of a conversation of poetry, stretching from the hearths where the original poetry was created as an oral tradition, through Shakespeare, through hundreds or thousands of poets since, to (and past) Jim Harrison’s old man pondering “the shadow passion casts”.
At its best, allusion is a lagniappe that you do not miss if you do not “get”. In the hands of a great poet, an allusion is not the key to understanding a poem, or a tricky detective game used to test the worthiness of the reader, but a subtle offering of even more. It’s like the third violin in an orchestra – without it, the work would not be ruined, but with it, it is enhanced.
It’s been years since I’ve watched a fire burn down to embers and expire, though it probably was a frequent occasion in Shakespeare’s time, and not uncommon in Harrison’s world of secluded cabins. As an image, the dying embers work on multiple levels. As an allusion, they enrich the Harrison poem, without requiring attention.