A critical reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’: so begins Sonnet 1 in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. This opening sonnet is all about procreation, but also, perhaps, sexual pleasure (including solitary sexual pleasure – about which we say more below). For the next 154 weeks (or nearly three years, in other words), we’re going to offer an analysis of one of William Shakespeare‘s sonnets every Monday. We’ll work through them in order, from 1 to 154, so we begin at the beginning here. What follows is our analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1, with some glosses on the language and some commentary on the poem’s meaning.
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,
Thy self 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.
The first 17 poems that make up Shakespeare’s Sonnets are known collectively as the ‘Procreation Sonnets’, since they feature Shakespeare addressing the ‘Fair Youth’ and entreating him to marry and have children. ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’ sets up this suite of procreation poems. In summary, what Shakespeare is saying in this sonnet is that it makes sense for beautiful creatures (including humans) to leave offspring, so that they pass on their beauty to the next generation, and their beauty thus lives on after they themselves have died.
But, Shakespeare continues, the Fair Youth is not interested in having children: he is wasting the best years of his youth and beauty in preening self-obsession when he should be finding a wife and having kids. Thus the ‘abundance’ of his good looks is being made into a ‘famine’, since it is being squandered until, eventually, none of his youthful beauty will remain, and he’ll have nothing to show for it – no wife, no heir. This is selfish but it’s also hard on him, the Fair Youth: he is being cruel to himself by denying himself the chance to have a child and create an heir.
Right now, Shakespeare argues, the Youth is fresh and young, calling to mind the spring (with its connotations not only of freshness and newness, but also the birth of new life – Shakespeare is strengthening the association between youth and bringing forth children here). But the Youth squanders his good looks by keeping them to himself.
Shakespeare concludes by advising the Fair Youth to pity the world that is jealous of his beauty, and give in to the world’s request that the Youth marry and reproduce. The alternative is to become a glutton – because if he devours all of his beauty himself rather than sharing some of it with the world, he’s greedy and selfish. The only one who would then share in the Youth’s beauty would be the grave, which feeds on us all in the end.
Several phrases in this opening sonnet call out for analysis. That opening line, ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’, causes relatively few problems, but later in the poem things become a little more ambiguous. For instance, what are we supposed to read into ‘Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel’? Is the ‘fuel’ there a subtle reference to that ‘fuel’ of life, semen? Is this one of a number of coded allusions to masturbation in Shakespeare’s Sonnets? The word ‘content’ in the eleventh line raises a similar question: does it mean ‘content’ as in simply ‘contents’ or ‘things contained’, or ‘content’ as in ‘satisfaction’, with the possible sexual connotations of such a word? The reference in the next line to the Fair Youth making ‘waste’ also anticipates the reference in one of the later sonnets to ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action’, lines commonly interpreted to be a reference to masturbation. Shakespeare may simply be chiding the Youth for being self-regarding; he may also be hinting at the other things he is ‘wasting’ by not getting married and procreating.
Sonnet 1 from Shakespeare’s Sonnets starts the sequence off in style, with a clear message but some rather less clear-cut phrases and images which leave us guessing. Those ‘fairest creatures’ lead neatly into the Bard’s analysis and depiction of the Fair Youth, with his vanity and stubbornness and beauty, that we find in the sonnets that follow.
Continue to discover Shakespeare’s Sonnets with our analysis of Sonnet 2: ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’, and learn more about Shakespeare’s best plays here. Discover more about the Bard with these recommended books about Shakespeare, and learn some English literature essay-writing tips here.
Further reading and sources: Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Belknap); Don Paterson, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary.
If you’re studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and looking for a detailed and helpful guide to the poems, we recommend Stephen Booth’s hugely informative edition, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene). It includes all 154 sonnets, a facsimile of the original 1609 edition, and helpful line-by-line notes on the poems.
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