Those hours that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

Looking back from later years (whether regretfully, nostalgically, whatever it may be) comes back throughout the sonnets and I sometimes think those are the most poignant. Neil Gaiman bookended his Sandman comic book series with two stories about Shakespeare, the last taking place in his old age as he sat down to write one last play — “The Tempest” — hiding all of his past joys and regrets throughout it. Gaiman needed a story about a wizard giving up his tools at the end of his life and he naturally went to Shakespeare. When I read sonnets like 5 I see why.

The hours are the chief decider — they frame how we see everyone and everything, treating everyone the same. However you were in life, you will reach a winter where everything is gone. But we all know that. For me, the key to this poem — the insight that makes it depart from generic backwards-looking woe — is all this stuff about summer’s distillation. It’s one of those nerve-pinching images that stay with you forever.

Summer’s gifts last long past the end of the season through everything stored in the “walls of glass,” all of those jars and bottles that see us safely and happily through the winter. I’ve never given much thought to any symbolism in 5, to be honest; never thought, “Oh, he means the distillations are the old photographs grandma keeps on the mantel.” That bores me. The image as it stands captures something that’s hard to put in words other than those last six lines. Time passes on behind us, the moments lose their show, their appearance. Their sharp edges and colors are lost but the feelings those experiences have given us — the substance, as he puts it — are there forever. There’s no active remembering needed here — the nature of the summer is to end and also to leave behind the substance for us, still living sweet, a subtle affirmation of permanence.