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’st 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, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
First published in 1609, Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is comprised of 154 sonnets, and it shares a number of themes with Petrarch and Dante’s sequences. Shakespeare’s sequence, however, is not directed to one single beloved; rather, the first 126 sonnets are addressed to the “Fair Youth”, an unnamed young man, and sonnets 127-152 are addressed to the “Dark Lady”. A few sonnets (78-86) are directed to and feature the rival poet, who seems to be in competition for the love of the fair youth. Shakespeare’s sonnets are written, unsurprisingly, in the form of the Shakespearean sonnet. However, this form (ABABCDCDEFEFGG) was first introduced by another poet, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, one of the earliest English sonneteers.
Sonnet 1 introduces many of the themes typically found in sonnet sequences: the beloved’s undeniable, beauty, the transience of human nature, time, procreation, and preservation. Indeed, the first 17 poems in Shakespeare’s sequence are often referred to as the “procreation sonnets”, since they all strongly feature the procreation metaphor.
The poem’s first line, as is often typical of Shakespeare, introduces the poem’s theme: procreation. Shakespeare is asserting the fact that we naturally want “fairest creatures” to reproduce or “increase”, so that “beauty’s rose” is preserved in the child, and thus “might never die”. Shakespeare then continues this nature metaphor, saying that as the “riper” (i.e. when the fair youth grows old) die, the “tender heir” (i.e. the child) will preserve not only the beauty of the fair youth, but also his memory through his similar looks. Thus the first quatrain is doing little other than asserting Shakespeare’s desire for the fair youth’s beauty to be preserved.
The second quatrain sees a shift in Shakespeare’s meaning, marked by his use of the words “But thou” at the start of the quatrain. He explains that the youth is self-absorbed and “contracted to thine own bright eyes” and that he “feed’st thy light’s flame” with what he calls “self-substantial fuel…” Shakespeare is angry that the youth is so narcissistic and wasteful of his own beauty, and that he will not procreate to preserve his beauty. This idea of beauty and youth as a flame is echoed again in sonnet 73, in which Shakespeare laments his own loss of youth. In sonnet 73 he refers to his youth as “the glowing of such fire / That on the ashes of his youth doth lie…” Thus where Shakespeare seems to treasure the flame of his youth and beauty, the fair youth to whom sonnet 1 is addressed selfishly keeps his beauty to himself, “Making a famine where abundance lies.” Shakespeare views this selfish attitude as harmful to the youth himself, and indeed he says: “Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.” Ironically, despite his anger, the poet cannot deny that his beloved is still “sweet”.
The third and final quatrain attempts to show the youth the importance of his beauty. He describes him as “the world’s fresh ornament” implying that one’s beauty is something to be shared, not kept for oneself. He continues, referring to the youth as the “only herald to the gaudy spring”, and again this emphasises the importance of sharing youth and beauty. The second half of the quatrain rebukes the youth for not having children: “Within thine own bud buriest thy content…” The poet’s use of the word “bud” again echoes the reference to “beauty’s rose” in the second line. Thus the youth is burying his beauty by not having children and, rather than preserving it, it will wither with him as he ages. In fact, Shakespeare the youth “makest waste is niggarding” (“niggarding” here means ‘hoarding’). He is wasting his beauty and youth, which is exactly what Shakespeare warns against in the first line.
The couplet, rather than contradicting what has come before (as Shakespeare often does in the last two lines), serves to sum up the three quatrains. He begs the youth to “Pity the world”. If the youth does not father a child, he will be a glutton who, like death (“by the grave and thee…”), will “eat the world’s due”. In other words, Shakespeare thinks it is the youth’s obligation and debt to the world to have a child and thus preserve his own beauty, rather than letting it wither with age and death. Although the youth cannot stop the grave burying his body, he can stop it from burying his beauty. The sonnet therefore seems to be Shakespeare’s attempt to persuade the so-called “Fair Youth” to have children (not with himself, of course) in order that his beauty, which the poet clearly treasures, be preserved.
Thus the structure of sonnet 1 is very simple: the first quatrain gives a moral premise (that beautiful creatures, like the youth, should strive to preserve their beauty), the second complains that the youth is violating this premise by not having children, and the third gives him a reason not to violate the premise: because he is, in Shakespeare’s eyes, the “only herald to the gaudy spring”. These ideas are continued in sonnet 2, in which Shakespeare explains to the fair youth that, if he does not have children, he will regret it, since his beauty will soon “be a tatter'd weed, of small worth held”, and there will be nothing to preserve it. This theme of wasted youth is also seen in the first scene of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Romeo laments that “when she [Juliet] dies, with beauty dies her store.” Romeo continues to complain about Juliet’s chastity, saying she “makes huge waste”. He exclaims: “For beauty starved with her severity / Cuts beauty off from all posterity.” Thus this theme of procreation is not only common in sonnet sequences, but also in many parts of the Shakespearean canon.