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Shakespeare Sonnet 5

Updated on September 15, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere

The Real "Shakespeare"
The Real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 5

The speaker of sonnet 5 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 pleasurable features. In his persuasion, the speaker appeals to the young lad's vanity.

Sonnet 5

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 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 black arts 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 the speaker, time has worked marvelously in "fram[ing] / The lovely gaze." Yet that same time will be unmerciful in transforming his lovely youthfulness to ugly, old age. The speaker then employs the passage of time to argue and to persuade the lad to marry and procreate lovely offspring, who will inherit the young man’s pleasing qualities.

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" and as he compares summer to winter. He qualifies winter descriptively as "hideous." Of course, the darkest coldest season of the year can be thought "hideous" with the sap in the trees can no longer flowing smoothly, as it is "check’d with frost."

The speaker metaphorically compares the sap in winter trees because when the frigid temperature prevents it from flowing smoothly, it will resemble the young man’s blood after the lad has acquired old age on his body.

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" compare with the other 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 employ the summer or his young adulthood, before winter or old age leaves his blood lethargic and modifying his pleasing qualities rendering them barren, withered, and ugly.

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 could likely be alluding to dandelion wine into alcohol: "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 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 to 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, and again the speaker is appealing to the young man's vanity.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue..

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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