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Analysis of Sonnet 5 by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's Effigy, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, sculpted by Nicholas Johnson around the time of Shakespeare's death, 1616.

William Shakespeare's Effigy, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, sculpted by Nicholas Johnson around the time of Shakespeare's death, 1616.

William Shakespeare And a Summary of Sonnet 5

Sonnet 5 is one of Shakespeare's procreation sonnets urging the fair youth to have offspring and outwit time by thinking about the flower's essence, how it remains sweet despite the ravages of winter.

  • The theme is that of time, nature and the continuation of the fair youth's beauty, the keyword distillation - the essential and vital substance that can outlast. Distillation involves a process of heating and cooling, summer into winter, time as benefactor and tyrant.
  • The form is classical Shakespearean/English sonnet. Fourteen lines, mostly iambic pentameter, with full rhyme scheme: ababcdcdefefgg
  • Metaphor and personification are used to help reinforce the idea of a natural continuation of beauty and sweetness, despite never-resting time.

The speaker suggests that time is a restless deceiver, two-faced. Having slowly created (gentle work) the youth's eye-catching beauty it will also then turn tyrant and uglify that same beauty.

Shakespeare again challenges the reader by changing tack, moving on from sonnet 4 with its emphasis on the pecuniary and concentrating instead on time and natural processes to help cement his ideas metaphorically.

Note how the three quatrains build up the argument for awareness. The colon at the end of line 4 introduces further explanation. Likewise the colon at line 8. And so on up to the concluding couplet.

The speaker is here saying that time has a dual nature. It can bestow beauty but will inevitably take it away. There is irony, there is the idea of complete forgetfulness of what it was like to be beautiful.

Summer beauty on the outside will give way to winter but the essence of that beauty will be maintained—the flower's substance lives on.

Is the speaker suggesting that the substance is stored inside? Then this will be the essence of the seed, the genetical information, of which beauty in future offspring would be the outward manifestation.

Sonnet 5


Analysis of Sonnet 5

What follows is a line by line analysis of sonnet 5.

Lines 1–4

The hours in which the frame (the shaped face) is gently made, which supports the lovely gaze that people can't stop admiring, are also capable of turning into tyrants, destroying beauty.

We're all born in time, subject to it. There's no escaping the fact. If we're seen as beautiful by others then the passing of time and the physical alterations we undergo have added emphasis.

Shakespeare's use of extreme, contrasting language underlines this idea: note gentle/tyrant, lovely/unfair.

The fair youth is being told again—don't hang around, create offspring to preserve beauty, or else time will turn you ugly.

Lines 5–8

The narrative moves deeper into the natural processes affected by time: the seasons. Here time is personified, it leads the summer on straight into winter (note the absence of autumn) and frosty cold.

Time is a kind of trickster, confusing the seasons and with it the idea of beauty. Even erotic beauty - sap and lusty leaves suggest the essential juices of life are frozen.

Lines 9–12

The imagery in the next quatrain is startling, summer's distillation (essences) seen as a liquid prisoner in the cold clear glass of winter. The word pent means to be shut up, enclosed.

The fair youth's beauty would be lost, a disassociation would occur; he'd not be able to remember how beauty lived in him, in his lovely gaze.

Lines 13–14

But the essence of the flower remains, hidden from the outside world; the external show meets winter full on, is done for, yet the distillation is there. The speaker's final hope for the sweetness of the fair youth to live on.

Meaning of Words in Sonnet 5

gentle work - slow creation

frame - shaped

tyrants - cruel oppressors

the very same - the lovely gaze

unfair - to make ugly, uglify

leads summer on - to mislead

confounds - confuses, mixes up

check'd - stopped

lusty - healthy and strong

quite gone - lost, disappeared, dead

distillation - essence (through heat and cold process) See also Sonnets 54, 74,119.

pent - shut in, repressed

bereft - lacking, sad, deprived

Nor it, nor no - neither it or any

Leese - lose, release

show - outward appearance

substance - essence

still lives sweet - always stays

What Is the Metre of Sonnet 5?

Sonnet 5 has dominant iambic pentameter in each line but with variation here and there to mix things up. It's always fascinating to see how Shakespeare uses the metrical feet in his sonnets.

Iambic feet have the first syllable unstressed, the second stressed, so daDUM is the result. Five of these in a ten syllable line make for pure iambic pentameter, giving the familiar steady rhythmic beat. This is still the most common beat in many lines of poetry.

Let's take a closer look, taking into account :

Line 1 - the word hours (howers in the original, published sonnet) is given two syllables, not one.

Line 6 - hideous is two syllables, not three.

Line 10 - prisoner is two syllables, not three.

Line 13 - flowers is one syllable, not two.

Those hou / rs, that / with gen / tle work / did frame
The love / ly gaze / where eve / ry eye / doth dwell,
Will play / the ty / rants to / the ve / ry same
And that / unfair / which fair / ly doth / excel;
For nev / er-rest / ing time / leads summ / er on
To hid / eous win / ter, and / confounds / him there;
Sap checked / with frost, / and lust / y leaves / quite gone,
Beauty / o'er-snowed / and bare / ness eve / ry where:
Then were / not summ / er's dis / tilla / tion left,
A liq / uid pris / oner pent / in walls / of glass,
Beauty's / effect / with beau / ty were / bereft,
Nor it, / nor no / remem / brance what / it was:
But flowers / distilled, / though they / with win / ter meet,
Leese but / their show; / their sub / stance still / lives sweet.

All the lines are iambic pentameter except:

Line 7 starts off with a double stressed foot, a spondee, DADUM.

Line 8 starts with a trochee, first syllable stressed, second not, DUMda.

Line 9 also has an opening trochee.

Line 11 has a trochee opening.

Line 14 similarly starts with a trochee, bringing the emphasis in earlier.


© 2022 Andrew Spacey