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Shakespeare Sonnet 1

Updated on September 7, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 1

The Shakespeare cannon remains best known for its plays such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, but it also includes 154 marvelously crafted sonnets. Various interpretations of the sonnets abound, but scholars and critics generally categorize the sonnets by thematic groups. Sonnet 1 belongs the to thematic group known as the "Marriage Sonnets," including sonnets 1-17. The speaker in the "Marriage Sonnets" has one goal in mind, to persuade a young man that he should marry and produce beautiful heirs.

Sonnet 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 1

Commentary

The speaker begins his pleas to a young man to marry and produce beautiful children. He employs various arguments in his persuasion that endures through a series of at lest 17 sonnets.

First Quatrain: Humankind Desires Continued Generational Beauty

From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:

The speaker asserts that nature and humanity wishes to be peopled by beautiful, pleasing specimens. The speaker has determined that this the young man, whom he address, possesses those qualities; therefore, the speaker has taken it upon himself to urge this beautiful young man to marry and produce children after his likeness.

In comparing the young man to a rose, the speaker attempts to persuade the lad that just like the rose, his beauty will fade, but by following this older man’s council, he will pass his beauty to a new generation, and instead of "by time decrease," he will cause the fairest to increase upon the world.

Second Quatrain: A Selfish Lad

But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Continuing his persuasive mood, the speaker then scolds the lad for being selfish and stingy with his own self adulation. He accuses him: ". . . thou contracted to thine own bright eyes, / Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel."

The young man’s conceit is starving society, causing a "a famine"; although the youngster possesses an "abundance" that he should share. By marrying, the boy can bring about offspring who will possess that same beauty. The speaker insists that the lad is actually thwarting his own interests by keeping his prepossessing characteristics to himself.

The speaker adopts a saddened facade to tell the young man that he thinks he is his own worst enemy, "to thy sweet self too cruel." The speaker uses cunning and flattery to achieve his goal.

Third Quatrain: Appealing to Vanity

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Apparently convinced that the accusation of selfishness is a winning strategy, the speaker again appeals to the young man’s vanity. Because the lad is only one person, if he fails to reproduce, he will remain only one and thus within himself "bur[y] his content."

The speaker appeals to the "tender chur" to stop wasting his time and energy focusing on himself alone. He is worth so much more than mere temporal beauty, but only by reproducing can he correct that situation.

The Couplet: Usurping the World's Possessions

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

The speaker sums up his complaint succinctly. He accuses the young man, who has resisted his pleas to marry and produce lovely offspring, of consuming what belongs to the world. Beauty, charm, and all forms of loveliness are due the world from those who possess it, but if this young man fails to follow the advice of the speaker, not only will he cheat the world, he will cheat himself and find himself alone with nothing but "the grave."

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poet's has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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