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Last Updated on March 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1185

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 5, written in the 1590s and first published in 1609, addresses the chief themes of the broader sonnet sequence: the transience of beauty, the ravages of time, and the preservative role of poetry. Sonnet 5 stands near the start of the Fair Youth sonnets, in which the speaker addresses his beloved—a beautiful, aristocratic young man. Again and again, the speaker warns the youth of the coming onslaught of time. He urges the youth to preserve his immense beauty, namely by bearing offspring who will carry on his lineage.

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Sonnet 5, like all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, adheres to a precise form:

  • Like all sonnets, they consist of fourteen lines divided into an octave and a sestet, which are cloven by a volta.
  • The lines are uniformly written in iambic pentameter, although Shakespeare often introduces metrical substitutions, producing variations in the poem’s rhythms.
  • The rhyme scheme Shakespeare uses is unique to English sonnets and has often been termed the “Shakespearean sonnet,” due to his famous and frequent use of it. Shakespeare’s rhyme scheme is ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG. This scheme is distinctive in the way that the sestet consists of a third quatrain and a final couplet, which is set off from the rest of the poem’s body. The final couplet allows Shakespeare to summarize the sonnet’s argument or make a final plea on the speaker’s behalf. The couplet rhyme stands out and seizes readers’ attentions. It produces a powerful effect in contrast to the alternating rhymes that mark the rest of the poem.

Sonnet 5 is unusual for two primary reasons. First, in the face of time’s destructive power, the speaker makes no overt pleas for the youth to procreate. Rather, the speaker turns to poetry as a medium that might contain the youth’s beauty for posterity. Second, the sonnet lacks the personal pronouns that populate Shakespeare’s sonnets. There are no instances of “I,” “you,” or “thou.” Indeed, readers might know nothing of the personal situation that encompasses Sonnet 5—including who is speaking to whom—were it not for the preceding and succeeding sonnets. Freed of pronouns, Sonnet 5 achieves an objective stance, reaching for suggestive images and metaphors to supply its argument. The objects at hand are not “I” and “thou,” but rather “the lovely gaze” and “summer’s distillation.” Readers—and the youth himself—are intended to read between the lines.

  • The first quatrain elucidates the paradox of time’s passage. The speaker observes that the same “hours that with gentle work” created the youth’s beauty “will play the tyrants to the very same.” Time produces beauty and then destroys it. In the fourth line, Shakespeare expresses this paradox in a witty turn of phrase: time will “unfair which fairly doth excel.” Here, to “unfair” is to uglify, and to “fairly excel” is to excel at being fair, or beautiful. This is an example of Shakespeare’s technique of turning a word on its head to produce additional meaning.
  • The second quatrain introduces the presiding metaphor of the poem. The seasonal progression from summer to winter represents the fair youth’s progression from youth to old age. Here, “never-resting time” is the agent of change and decay, leading summer to winter and youth to death. In lines seven and eight, Shakespeare gathers images from a landscape transformed by seasonal change. The images are charged with the qualities of human youth and their decline: “sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone.”
  • The third quatrain begins with the sonnet’s volta, or turn. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the volta often introduces a pivot in tone, a shift in the poem’s argument, or a fresh metaphor. In the case of Sonnet 5, all three changes arrive. Having detailed the ravages of time in the octave—the first two quatrains—the speaker proposes an answer. With this turn from problem to solution comes a turn from despair to hope. The solution is proposed through a new metaphor that sustains the second quatrain’s seasonal conceit: “summer’s distillation… A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.” The metaphor proposes a floral distillation as a means to sustain summer’s beauty. As in the octave, summer stands for the beloved youth. The container, with its “walls of glass,” is the sonnet itself—or perhaps the sonnet sequence as a whole. Shakespeare frequently cites the sonnets as vessels for capturing the fair youth before time can undo him.
  • The final couplet clarifies the metaphor of the third quatrain, supplying “summer’s distillation” with the more specific image of “flowers distilled.” In typical form, Shakespeare uses the final couplet to compress and convey the sonnet’s argument. The speaker concedes that the distilled flowers eventually “leese,” or lose, “their show.” However, “their substance still lives sweet.” This distinction between show and substance, between appearance and essence, lies at the heart of the sonnet sequence. The sonnets cannot physically preserve the beloved youth, but they might preserve his soul—or so the speaker hopes.

Shakespeare’s use of metaphor in Sonnet 5 is incremental. Each new metaphor builds on a pre-existing metaphor or conceit. The second quatrain’s metaphor of seasonal change naturally follows the first quatrain’s conceit of “those hours” that “will play tyrants.” Both metaphors dramatize time’s passage by focusing on specific units of time—first hours, then seasons. The third quatrain’s metaphor naturally follows that of the second quatrain. Whereas the second quatrain dramatizes the decay of sap and “lusty leaves,” the third quatrain introduces the promise of distilled flowers. Both metaphors rely on a botanical framework, using simple images from the natural world to convey the speaker’s view as it moves from despair to hope. The final couplet specifies flowers as the object of the distillation process introduced in the third quatrain. Flowers, with their dual properties of “show” and “substance,” solve the speaker’s problem while remaining within the poem’s metaphorical arena.

Sonnet 5 can be read as an ars poetica, a poem about poetry. Perhaps the most striking line in the poem is ten: “A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.” This rich image can be construed into two related but distinct metaphors:

  • The prisoner is the beloved youth; the walls of the glass are the structures of Sonnet 5, in which the youth is “pent.” The youth’s liquidity stands for his immortality; he maintains the fluid quality of living things, as opposed to the frozen sap, falling leaves, and bare snow of the second quatrain. The metaphor extends to the glass walls of the sonnet, which allow future generations of readers—ourselves included—to inspect and appreciate the youth’s essence.
  • The other metaphor that can be drawn from this image is a purely poetic one. The glass walls are the constraints of the sonnet form, with its necessary meter, rhyme scheme, and verse structure. Within these strict rigidities of poetic tradition, Shakespeare pours the “liquid prisoner” of the heart’s pains, fears, and desires. This precise tension between warm feeling and cold form animates many, if not all, of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

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