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,
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.
Berryman considers this one of the best poems in English. . He attributes its greatness to the “sinister diminution of the time concept, quatrain by quatrain.” I will repeat his interpretation of the poem in full as it is piercingly insightful and lyrical in itself:
We have first a year, and the final season of it; then only a day, and the final stretch of it; then just a fire, built for part of the day, and the final minutes of it; then- entirely deprived of life, in prospect, and, even now a merely objective “that,” like a third- person corpse! -the poet. The imagery begins and continues as visual- yellow, sunset, glowing- and one by one these are destroyed; but also in the first quatrain one heard sound, which disappears there; and from the couplet, imagery of every kind is excluded, as if the senses were indeed dead, and only abstract, posthumous statement is possible. A year seems short enough; yet ironically the day, and then the fire, makes it in retrospect seem long, and in the final, immediate triumph of the poem’s imagination is that, in the last line about the year, line 4, an immense vista is indeed invoked- that of the desolate monasteries strewn over England, sacked in Henry’s reign, where “late”- not so long ago!- a terrible foreglance into the tiny coming times of the poem- the choirs of monks lifted their little and brief voices, in ignorance of what was coming- as the poet would be doing now, except that this poem knows. Instinct is here after all, a kind of thought.
In this poem, the author’s tone is again tinged with self pity and resignation as he describes the knowledge that he is in the twilight years of his life. By invoking the destruction of the English monasteries, the “Bare ruin’s choirs”, Campion seems to have an eerie presentiment of his death as a Catholic martyr at the hands of a Protestant monarch and her government. He acknowledges the strength and quality of a love that continues when the object of that love is doomed.
Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which prove more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all, and more ,by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet foregoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers in their gazing spent?
No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mix’d with seconds, knows no art
But mutual render, only me for thee.
Hence thou suborn’d informer! a true soul
When most impeach’d stands least in thy control.
This sonnet seems the most damning evidence against William of Stratford, for how could he have possibly ever been in the position or imagined himself in the position of carrying the royal canopy and laying great bases for eternity. Oxfordians have always claimed this sonnet as their justification, but they have been unable to prove that the Earl of Oxford, even as Lord Great Chamberlain, ever bore the canopy at an official function, such as a royal funeral or coronation . Again, there have been disagreements because of the grammar, that is, whether the poet is actually saying he bore the canopy as a statement of fact in the past tense or posing the following hypothetical question ‘Would it be anything to me if I bore the canopy?’.
In the case of Edmund Campion, I can cite an event where, if he did not actually carry the canopy himself, he could well have witnessed the event and imagined himself in the role of bearer. Evelyn Waugh recounts in his biography of Campion how, on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to Oxford University in1566, four Dons of the university carried the canopy over the Queen as she made her way to church.. We do not know whether one of those Dons was Campion but we do know that he had a prominent part in the proceedings during the visit and earned the attention and respect of the royal party. The Queen apparently asked both the Earl of Leicester and William Cecil to offer the impressive scholar their patronage after the visit, with Campion making, what to Waugh was a puzzling decision, in favour of Leicester.
In this sonnet the poet seems to be saying that it is not important to him that he bears or bore the royal canopy or “laid great bases for eternity” . He has seen the pitiful condition of those who speculated upon the advancements, profits and promotions of the royal court and does not wish a part in it for himself. Rather he is happier to make his offerings of devotion and simple affection to his beloved - oblations which do not come with a price attached. The couplet that concludes the sonnet and seems to be aimed at a third person has defied orthodox interpretation. I would like to posit that Campion wrote these words as a rhetorical aside to the Queen and those who had tried to entice him to accept a position in the Protestant church with promises of worldly riches. He is saying that he cannot be bought by their offers or controlled by false accusations because he remains a true soul whose love and sincere affection belong only to his beloved.