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Shakespeare Sonnet 5: "Those hours, that with gentle work did frame"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford—the real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford—the real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 5: "Those hours, that with gentle work did frame"

The speaker of sonnet 5 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains dedicated to fashioning his little dramas to convince the young man that the latter must marry and procreate to preserve his youth. The crafty speaker now employs an interesting comparison of summer and winter along with ways to prolong pleasant physical features. In his persuasion, the speaker appeals to the young lad's vanity, even as he attempts to elevate the lad’s sense of duty.

Sonnet 5: "Those hours, that with gentle work did frame"

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel;
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter, and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

Reading of Sonnet 5

Commentary

Appealing to the vanity of the youth remains an avenue for persuasion, and this speaker employs that tactic with special skill.

First Quatrain: The Ravages of Time

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel;

The first quatrain of sonnet 5 finds the speaker reminding the young man that the self-same passage of time that has worked its wizardry to render the lad a thing of beauty, and a pleasing creation, will eventually transform into a tyrannical despot and thus will undo his handsome, lovely characteristics. The young man, whose qualities are very attractive—so much so that "every eye doth dwell" upon his features—has the obligation to send on those qualities to a new generation.

According to the speaker, time has worked marvelously in perfecting the young man’s countenance; yet that same time will be unmerciful in transforming his lovely youthfulness into ugly, old age. The speaker then employs the ravages from the passage of time to persuade the lad to marry and procreate, so that there will be a new generation to inherit the young man’s pleasing qualities.

The speaker had earlier adopted the notion that a certain kind of immorality could be reached simply by producing children. He is replying on the fact that children often do resemble their parents. The unhappy fact also is rampant that sometimes children do not take on the same pleasing physical features that adorn the parent. The speaker, who is obviously a betting man, however, is wagering that this lad’s offspring would acquit him well in the looks department. The speaker simply fails to address the issue of true immortality, likely determining that the lad is too vain to notice such a nice distinction.

Second Quatrain: A Nature Comparison

For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter, and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:

The speaker then names time as "never-resting" as he continues to compare summer to winter. He qualifies winter descriptively as "hideous." Of course, the darkest, coldest season of the year can be thought "hideous" when the sap in the trees can no longer flow smoothly, as it is "check’d with frost." The speaker metaphorically compares the sap in winter trees to human blood because while the frigid temperature prevents the sap from flowing smoothly, it will resemble the young man’s blood after the lad’s physical encasement has descended into old age.

Not only does the sap cease flowing in the trees, but also the "lusty leaves [are] quite gone," with "Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where." The "lusty leaves" metaphorically represent the outer physical attractiveness of the young man; his features reflect the physical beauty to which so many folks have been attracted. The lad would be well advised to make good use of the summer or his young adulthood, before winter or old age leaves his blood lethargic, modifying his pleasing qualities and rendering them barren, withered, and ugly.

The speaker understands the lad’s fondness for his own physical attractiveness; thus, the speaker can appeal to his vanity. He dramatizes the physical fact of aging, making the process as clear as possible with his various metaphors. He likely feels that he can produce an unlimited number of scenarios, in which to place the young man. The speaker also remains well acquainted with the many personality traits of the young man to which he can appeal and exploit for persuasion.

Third Quatrain: Summer vs Winter

Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:

The speaker now asserts a creative epitome, dramatizing the summer’s essence as being conserved in the distillation process of flowers to make perfume. The speaker is likely alluding to the process of converting dandelion flowers into wine: "A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass." But without the offspring of summer, the beauty that had been would have disappeared, and no one would recall that summer had ever been. Comparing the result of summer to perfume or wine, the speaker attempts to demonstrate to the young man that re-creating his own likeness would be a grand gift to the world as well as to himself.

The speaker continues to build up the lad’s character even as he appeals to his baser qualities of vanity and selfishness. If he can persuade the young man to offer the gift of his offspring to the world, he can likely convince the lad that his life will remain more important than being a mere physical presence.

The Couplet: Preserving His Own Youth

But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

The couplet finds the speaker again referring to the perfume/alcohol created in summer. The "flowers" were distilled to produce the "liquid prisoner." The speaker retorts that even though those flowers were met with winter, they gave up only beauty to the eye of the beholder, while their "substance" or essence, that is, the liquid they yielded, "still lives sweet."

The speaker continues in the hope that his persuasion will appeal to the lad’s vanity and make him want to preserve his own youth. But the speaker is just asserting another ploy to get the young man to marry and have beautiful children; yet again, the speaker is appealing to the young man's vanity and sense of self.

Shakespeare Identified Lecture, by Mike A'Dair And William J. Ray

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes