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Essay: Shakespeare’s sonnets 5, 20 and 60 – use of metaphors and imagery

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  • Published: 8 June 2021*
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Throughout this essay I will analyse sonnets 5, 20 and 60 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets with relation to the poet’s use of metaphors and imagery, as well as showcasing the relationship between form and meaning.
‘Sonnet 5’ identifies contrast of aging of man from youth to old age with nature. The second quatrain recognises the contrast of nature to physical beauty; the poet cleverly lines this idea in correspondence to an extended seasonal metaphor which runs throughout the sonnet.
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter, and confounds him there,
(Shakespeare 2010 [1609], 5.5-6)
‘Sonnet 5’ follows the regular structural pattern ababcdcdefefgg and is an iambic pentameter, perhaps this was on purpose to this specific sonnet as the theme is the passing of time which is to do with time being consistent, the pattern and rhythm is also ongoing throughout the entire sonnet which is in contrast to time as time is never at a stand-still; time is “never-resting”. The metaphor “time leads summer on” is a way of suggesting time is deceiving; time has been personified with a human characteristic of betrayal which defines aging as a process that we cannot control and it is inevitably the very thing leading us to death. These lines represent the seasonal metaphor as summer has a double meaning, as well as signifying the season it is also a symbolic representation of youth as is winter which represents old age. However, summer is seen as a time of enjoyment and relaxation, winter is described as “hideous”. Winter has been metaphorically personified as something that is horrible and ugly which suggests winter (old age) is being iterated from a negative standpoint. This negativity to old age is emphasised when time is accused of abandonment “confounds him there”, the notion of time leading summer on into winter is a metaphorical way of saying time is tricking summer (youth) with positive vibes only to abandon it later in winter destroying the youths prime (beauty) with ugliness (old age); he is identifying youth to beauty and old age to ugliness.
The first quatrain highlights the effect of time on beauty explaining how time will eventually catch up with the beautiful young man making him older and taking away his beauty. Beauty is introduced in the first line as an associate of youth;
Those hours that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell.
(Shakespeare 2010 [1609], 5.1-2)
“Those hours” emphasises the powerful force of aging and personifies time to be the very thing that beautifies the man. It is clear the poet is enthralled by a man whom he finds attractive and is aware he is not the only one who appreciates it “every eye doth dwell”. However, the stressed syllable on “Will” (5.3) indicates a change in tone, it is a dramatic warning to the recipient that you can’t escape time; time is a cruel and oppressive ruler “tyrant” (5.3). This links with the theme of the sonnet as time is the very thing that gave the man the good looks and is the very thing that will take it all away; it is a paradox statement. The second quatrain concludes that aging destroys beauty. The tone of the poem builds up to more dramatic approach to the passing of time as its negative consequences are highlighted further. “Lusty leaves” (5.7) is alliteration and a metaphor that we are withering with age. The second quatrain concludes with the notion of beauty eventually disappearing with the body aging so we could also interpret this as a reference to the greying of hair “Beauty o’er snowed” (5.8).
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass
(Shakespeare 2010 [1609], 5.10)
This analogy is of making perfume from flowers; flowers aren’t long lasting but we can preserve their essence by extracting perfume from them and keeping them in glass bottles. The effect of old age is argued with “prisoner” emphasising you can’t escape the consequence of time highlighting the urgency to procreate to preserve your beauty.
‘Sonnet 20’ begins on a metaphor “A woman’s face” (20.1) as the address is male. This metaphor runs throughout the sonnet with constant comparisons to the male carrying feminine physical qualities however, nature has tweaked the creation in giving him better characteristics than that of a female;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as if false women’s fashion;
(Shakespeare 2010 [1609], 20.3-4)
The repeating sequence of “A woman’s” is an anaphora and emphasises the fact this male acquires the soft and enchanting possessions specific to females. “Not acquainted” conceals a pun where it uses slang that refers to the female sex organ as ‘quaint’ suggesting an indirect statement of the man not having the physical quality of what makes a female a true female even though he carries many other traits. The line ends with an enjambment and continues to emphasise the praising of the man. The words “false women’s fashion” makes the general reader feel a sense of judgement from the author as it suggests women are subject to change providing a sense of falsehood innate within them.
The general reader might relate to the feeling of angst as many have come across situations where they want what they can’t have, this idea is presented by the poet with the beautiful man having a male genital “to my purpose nothing:” (20.12).
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated
(Shakespeare 2010 [1609], 20.10-11)
The general reader would feel sympathy for the poet; the emotional response is triggered by the metaphor of nature’s deceiving ulterior motive. “a-doting” suggests it was more than just a liking, nature was engulfed by its creation and in turn created the perfect person for the speaker but it was in fact a person they cannot have which may have been a tactful plan for no one to have this beautiful creation. “defeated” contributes to this idea of nature’s deceptive attitude instigating it was done on purpose to target the speaker however it can also be interpreted as a consequence to nature’s mistake as line 9 suggests the man was meant to be created as a female “And for a woman wert thou first created,” (20.9) until nature fell in love and made an error in the process. To support this argument “addition” is a means to ‘add onto’ meaning it was an added result which in turn affected his desires. This feeling of sympathy can be for both speaker and nature as the general reader can be sympathetic to nature’s mistake as making mistakes is a learning curve of life and the consequences are always there.
The imagery we are given is that of a man who possess immense femininity of both his appearance and general aspects of his personality however the characteristics have been tweaked and the man is made superior to that of women. This is emphasised in the second quatrain;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
(Shakespeare 2010 [1609], 20.5-6)
Again, “false” is repeated from line 4 emphasising this idea of females’ beauty being used as a deceit to men, as if they are not as innocent as they can appear to be. But this so-called conclusion of women does not seem to apply to this man which is an unfair precedent to set. “More bright…less false” is a parallel statement which provides evidence that this man possess superior qualities to that of women. “Gilding” means to beautify, this line is stating a metaphor that implies the addressee possesses the ability to enchant anyone with a look providing the man with a powerful nature to charm women.
‘Sonnet 60’ opens on imagery; the reader is being made to imagine a tide of waves moving against the shoreline. Feelings of relaxation and peace come to mind as the opening simile “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,” (60.1) sets the warm tone of the poem in comparing the waves lapping against one another in a continuous motion to that of time passing by. ‘Sonnet 60’ is an iambic pentameter however includes trochees which interrupt the steady rhythm; perhaps this was the poet’s way of emphasising the waves crashing against the shoreline “Each changing” (60.3) as the waves are metaphorical for the passing of time. The metre adds to the notion of time being unpredictable in correspondence to waves. Line 2 “our minutes” (60.2) is a pun playing on the number of the sonnet as there are 60 minutes in an hour, the line associates the minutes of the day replacing one another to that of the waves replacing one another on the shoreline. A parallel is made with time and the waves, as like the waves, time is unstoppable and death is unavoidable. Each line within the first quatrain matches this idea of being in a consistent motion. For the shoreline to be “Pebbled” (60.1) brings forward an extended metaphor for life not being as easy-going as to have a sandy shoreline is much smoother in comparison. This may be done on purpose to personify time as cruel and destructive with the metaphorical image of the fast waves crashing against the shoreline.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity; wherewith being crowned
(Shakespeare 2010 [1609], 60.5-6)
The metaphorical image perceived is that of time passing in relevance to human life using the imagery of the sun rising throughout the day in contrast to a new-born baby. Describing “Nativity” as the “main of light” refers to the spread of sunlight illuminating the whole ocean. This may instigate the notion of when a human is born the amount of time they perceive life in their looks is as wide and deep as the ocean however will reach their peak (just as the sun will reach its highest point) and then begin to fade again. It is a metaphor that is parallel to the notion of death being inevitable, you are born to grow to then die. To expand this idea we can refer to the phrase “Crawls to maturity”, this could mean the sun is slowly ascending through the sky and comparing that to a child moving into adolescence to adulthood at a slow and steady pace of a baby’s crawl however once reached their prime “crowned” the pace quickens and they descend to old age and then death. There is a shift in the poem after “crowned”, up until this point the poem has been building upon itself with the notion of time never being at a stand-still using an ocean metaphor and always moving forward to the imagery of the destructive and damaging effects of time.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
(Shakespeare 2010 [1609], 60.9)
Time is personified as a powerful force. To “transfix” means to destroy, the conceit here is of time as a monster. This extended metaphor may invite feelings of distress for the reader as time is real and relevant and this sonnet is an exemplary example of the negative aspects of the passage of time. To have something “set” is to have been given it like youth, which is a beautiful time in one’s life and time being a destructive force will wait like a predator until youth is at its prime before attacking the creation, “Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth” (60.11). Time is the reason for change in appearance with “delves the parallels” (60.10) suggesting time carves the consequences of old age.
The passing of time is a key theme which occurs throughout all three sonnets; although Shakespeare generally follows a conventional structural pattern of ababcdcdefefgg with an iambic pentameter ‘Sonnet 5’ and ‘Sonnet 60’ differ in contrast. Time is a construct throughout all three sonnets but is emphasised as a force of destruction in ‘Sonnet 60’ as ‘Sonnet 20’ highlights the admiration of man with time being hinted. However, ‘Sonnet 5’ meets both ideas in the middle with the admiration of man but then also reminding man of the consequences of time. Shakespeare also uses a similar metaphorical approach to convey his messages in each of his sonnets. ‘Sonnet 5’ uses seasonal metaphors to represent youth and old age, ‘Sonnet 20’ uses metaphors to compare man as superior to women and ‘Sonnet 60’ uses a metaphor of waves in contrast to time passing by.

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