A critical reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
Sonnet 5 in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which begins ‘Those hours, that with gentle work did frame …’ is another ‘Procreation Sonnet’ – many of these sonnets might also be described as carpe diem or ‘seize the day’ poems. A brief analysis of Sonnet 5 follows below. In the poem, Shakespeare once again urges the Fair Youth to have children, because time, which has helped to fashion his beauty, will also rob him of it.
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 checked with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’er-snowed 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 distilled, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.
In summary, Shakespeare’s argument runs as follows: time, which has gently and kindly fashioned the Fair Youth’s pleasant eyes which now look on everything, will also be responsible for stealing his beauty from him, and that which is now beautiful and fair (the Youth’s eyes) will be rendered unfair. (Shakespeare uses ‘unfair’ here, unusually, as a verb: i.e. ‘to remove the fair(ness) from’ something.)
Time, which never stays still, marches on, and the Youth’s prime will soon turn to old age (summer and winter used metaphorically to refer to these two periods of life), and time will confound (i.e. thwarts or undoes) the Youth’s prime. The image here is of summer personified, much as time has been personified (a commoner trope, this: Old Father Time and all that), and of time leading summer into the winter season and then destroying him. This idea of ‘leading on’ the summer suggests betrayal by a friend, conveying the idea that old age sneaks up on us and we are all deceived by time. The image of ‘sap check’d with frost’ suggests the Renaissance idea that the blood in the body (sap is, if you like, trees’ lifeblood) cools and eventually freezes in old age, and the ‘lusty leaves’ suggest the withering of beauty until nothing but the spare frame of the body remains. The image of ‘beauty o’ersnowed’ continues this idea of the body cooling in old age, but we might also interpret this as a reference to the greying of hair.
The third quatrain then uses the analogy of making perfume from flowers: flowers last only for a season or so, but you can preserve their sweet smell by distilling perfume from them which is then put in glass bottles. This is what the Fair Youth’s marrying and having a child would be like: siring a child would be his way of preserving his beauty and ‘distilling’ it in the form of his heirs, who would keep his beauty alive in the next generation. But if you do not do this, Shakespeare argues, then when you get old not only will your beauty die, but the potential benefits of your beauty (i.e. children) would die with it, just as, if you do not distil perfume from them, when flowers die their sweet smell perishes with them. The last line of this quatrain presents a challenge for any analysis of the sonnet, given the difficult syntax, but what Shakespeare seems to be saying is ‘neither beauty itself, nor any remembrance of what it was like, would be left’.
Shakespeare then concludes Sonnet 5 by saying: ‘Although flowers will wither and die come the winter, those that have been distilled into perfume will have their essential substance preserved, even though the outward form of the flower itself has been lost.’
The word ‘leese’ presents something of a challenge here: how should we interpret the meaning of ‘leese’? The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that, whilst it is an old word for ‘release’ (which makes sense), it can also mean ‘lose’. The two meanings are, of course, connected, but here it makes more sense to think of the flowers losing their outward beauty (petals and so on) but retaining their essence (through having their sweet smell preserved as perfume).
We hope this short analysis of Sonnet 5 has helped to elucidate the argument Shakespeare is making. What do you think of Sonnet 5? Continue to explore the Sonnets with our analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnet 6.