THoſe howers that with gentle worke did frame,
The louely gaze where euery eye doth dwell
Will play the tirants to the very ſame,
And that vnfaire which fairely doth excell:
For neuer reſting time leads Summer on,
To hidious winter and confounds him there,
Sap checkt with froſt and luſtie leau’s quite gon.
Beauty ore-ſnow’d and barenes euery where,
Then were not ſummers diſtillation left
A liquid priſoner pent in walls of glaſſe,
Beauties effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor noe remembrance what it was.
But flowers diſtil’d though they with winter meete,
Leeſe but their ſhow, their ſubſtance ſtill liues ſweet.
The “howers,” with which Sonnet 5, the first of a pair of sonnets, opens are the classical ‘Hours,’ the Horae or ‘Ωραι, daughters of Zeus and Themis, who presided over the seasons – hora can also mean ‘season’ – and their products and were thought to engender ripeness in nature and the prime of human life. The sonnet continues the imagery of childbirth and the natural of the preceding sonnets: “gentle” work is noble and natural work (from gens or geno/gigno = beget); “frame” intends ‘shape’ or ‘fashion,’ and was used specifically of a child in the womb. 1 The “howers” have fashioned the youth’s “louely gaze,” his way of looking lovingly and beautifully; on him all eyes are fastened (“where euery eye doth dwell”). But the hours, which created his look, will in time act as destructive tyrants and make “vnfaire” that which in its fairness excels.
The Horae govern the seasons: “neuer resting time” is a time that is inexorable and without stop (Ovid’s tempus inexcusabile = time that won’t be refused). 2 It “leads on,” either ‘drives’ or ‘beguiles’ or ‘guides’ summer into winter; “hidious winter” is ‘rough’ or ‘horrifying’ winter, another Latinism and a rendering of hiems atrox = hideous winter; 3 “confounds” intends ‘utterly defeats.’ “Sap checkt with frost” is the first of a series of floating participles or Latinate ablative absolutes: “checkt” means ‘stopped,’ so that summer’s life-force is ‘halted’ or ‘bottled up.’ But “checkt” keeps the sense of ‘variegated’ or ‘chequered,’ so the life force is ‘mottled’ with white frost. The vigorous (“lustie”) leaves of summer depart, beauty is covered over with snow (“ore-snow’d”), and only bareness or barrenness is present (“barenes euerywhere”).
The sestet develops the distillatory trope, hinted at in Sonnet 3.8-9 and recurring in Sonnets 54, 74 and 119. If, the poet argues, the essence of summer were not preserved as a distilled liquid shut up in a limbeck (“a liquid prisoner pent in walls of glasse”), then that which beauty produces (“beauties effect”) would be stripped (“bereft”) of beauty (“pent” intends ‘confined’ but hints at ‘wishing to burst forth’). Neither beauty nor any “remembrance” of it would remain to continue life (the sentence is without a verb). But, the couplet argues, if flowers are distilled and encounter winter’s barrenness, they lose (“leese,” a customary old spelling) only their display (“but their show”), and not their quintessence (“substance”) which, as sweetness, will remain alive. (“Leese” is probably so spelt to suggest ‘lees,’ the dregs or sediment left after distilling.) The argument is taken up in the opening to Sonnet 6, “Then let . .”
5.1. See Peter de la Primaudaye on foetal development, “Of the fashion of a childe in the wombe and how the members are framed” (The Second Part of the French Academie (London: G[eorge] B[ishop] et al., 1594) 393) or Edmund Spenser, Amoretti 8.9, “You frame my thoughts and fashion me within.”
5.2. Ovid, Met. 7.511.
5.3. See Pliny, Hist. 188.8.131.523.