Shakespeare Sonnet 5 - Analysis

Study Guide to Shakespeare's Sonnet 5

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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 5: Those Hours, That With Gentle Work Did Frame is unusual because it needs to be read as a two-part poem with Sonnet 6. The poem uses the familiar concern about ageing and compares it with the seasons, which are used as a comparison to the various stages of a man’s life.

This metaphor is regularly employed in Shakespeare’s work. The summer represents the young man’s youth and winter his old age.

The poem also reflects on the transient and the eternal. Ageing will affect one’s beauty but a rose’s petals can be crushed and made into perfume and thus its beauty is, at least in part, preserved. In the same way, age will corrupt the fair youth’s beauty, but it could be preserved in his offspring.

Want to read the original text? Read Sonnet 5 in our collection.

Sonnet 5: The Facts

  • Sequence: Fair Youth Sonnets
  • Key Themes: The passing of time, ageing, death prohibiting the continuation of beauty, seasonal metaphors, procreation, the transient and the eternal
  • Style: Obeys strict rules of the sonnet form, including 10 syllables per line (iambic pentameter)

Sonnet 5: A Translation

The hours it took to develop your beautiful eyes, which get you lots of attention from other eyes looking back at you, will eventually diminish that same beauty.

Time never rests and summer leads to hideous winter; summer is then gone.

Sap is stopped by the frost and leaves have disappeared. Beauty is covered over by snow and everything is bare. If summer’s distillation had not been kept in a glass vial, summer would be forgotten as if it never existed – no one would even remember it. But flowers can be distilled when winter comes, not in their current form but as perfume from their petals which is preserved and is sweet.

Sonnet 5: Analysis

The poet appeals to the fair youth’s vanity in this poem, comparing his beauty to a summer flower which will be killed by the harrowing winter unless it can be preserved in some way … presumably by procreation. This way, the essence of the fair youth’s beauty can live on when his has diminished.

His offspring will take on his essence in the same way that a flower can be crushed and turned into perfume so that the scent is preserved.

The poet explores the transient and the eternal using the seasons, which are in themselves transient but are recreated every year. Beauty is transient but its essence can be captured in a memory, a smell or a picture that reminds us of that beauty … but it can never be replicated in full.

The comparison with the seasons, the vial and the procreation theme is continued almost seamlessly in Sonnet 6, which is why some people believe they should be read together.