Sonnet 5 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Summary and Analysis

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,185 words.)