A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 11, beginning ‘As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st’, is another ‘Procreation Sonnet’, in which the Bard urges the Fair Youth to marry and have children. Below, we sketch out a brief analysis of Sonnet 11 in terms of its overall meaning, its language, and its themes.
As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st,
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this folly, age, and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish:
Look whom she best endowed, she gave the more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby,
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.
In summary, Shakespeare starts off by talking hypothetically to the Fair Youth, saying that, just as quickly as you, the Youth, will decline into old age, your children would grow (‘In one of thine’ meaning ‘in one of your children’). These children would grow up as you depart from both your youthful beauty towards old age. And if you ‘bestow’ a child upon your (hypothetical) wife by getting married while still young, you would be able to regard your child’s ‘fresh blood’ as yours, as you leave your own youth behind and grow older.
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare says that, by doing this – i.e. by marrying and having a child – you would be acting wise, by increasing and continuing your family line and allowing your beauty to live again in your son. But if you didn’t do this, that way lies foolishness, old age, and ‘decay’ into death. After all, if everyone behaved like you and refused to procreate, within seventy years (the biblical span of a human life: ‘three score years and ten’) the human race would die out.
In lines 9-12, we can analyse Shakespeare’s argument to the Fair Youth in terms of animal breeding: let those who have not been endowed with the ability to breed (‘made for store’) die out without leaving offspring, but those whom Mother Nature has endowed with lots of beauty and good breeding should be cherished, and the best way to honour the gifts she has given you (the gifts of beauty and good breeding) is to be prolific and abundant, i.e. have children.
In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare switches metaphors, moving from the stable to the printer’s workshop: Mother Nature has made the Fair Youth as a paragon of beauty for the world to admire, much as a royal seal is used to stamp approval and authority on important documents. And, Shakespeare concludes, it is the Fair Youth’s responsibility to ‘print’ copies of himself, by having children, rather than let the original ‘copy’ (the Youth himself, who was a copy of his father) die out by not being reproduced. (Of course, we still use ‘reproduce’ these days with this double meaning of both ‘have children’ and ‘print or photocopy’ something, a modern update of an age-old conceit.)
In the last analysis, Sonnet 11 is a reworking of many of the ideas we’ve already seen in the first ten sonnets in Shakespeare’s sequence, but it offers one or two fresh ideas into the mix. Continue to explore Shakespeare’s Sonnets with our summary of Sonnet 12.
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.