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Sonnet 1 by William Shakespeare

It's Wednesday with the Bard, and I'm even writing up a brand-new, never-been-done-before analysis for you this morning. I may be too dizzy to drive, but at least I can still read and type! Also, I'm extra-excited about Shakespeare lately thanks to the wonderful present I got from cousins Rick and Lynn Owens and their family: an 1853 edition of the The Complete Works of Shakespeare. It's so awesome!

First the sonnet, and then the discussion.

Sonnet 1
by William Shakespeare

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.

Form: A Shakespearean sonnet, which means that it contains the standard 14 lines of a sonnet, and is rhymed ABABCDCDEFEFGG. It is written in iambic pentameter, meaning that each line contains five iambic feet (taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). In addition to the rhyme scheme, a sonnet contains a volta or a turn, which is examined in the discussion below.

Discussion: Shakespeare is known to have circulated a small group of sonnets somewhat publicly during his lifetime. These probably included sonnets such as Sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"), which I have pointed out before would have made a hilarious performance piece at the hands of a skilled actor and orator such as Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote a much larger group of sonnets that were more private and more tightly held, usually referred to as the "fair youth" sonnets. They include poems of praise and of love for a beautiful young man, likely one of Shakespeare's patrons. Sonnet 1 is the first of the fair youth poems, and the first of the "procreation" series of sonnets.

In the first four lines, Shakespeare explains that people like beautiful people and want them to procreate so as to keep their beauty alive in the world through other generations. In the second four lines, he extrapolates this to the fair youth in particular, and notes that fair youth is not doing his procreative duty, but is instead hoarding his beauty and not breeding. The suggestion exists that the young man is a bit vain and caught up with himself in the line "But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes", evoking the idea of guy staring narcissistically into a mirror. It also means that the fair youth is not contracted in marriage to anyone (and therefore about to reproduce), but is keeping to himself. Shakespeare indicates that the fair youth is depriving not only the world but himsel fin the final line, "Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel."

The turn, or volta, occurs in the third quatrain, where the language not only shifts from death, decrease, and famine to freshness, buds, and gaudiness, but the overall tone shifts as well. Rather than describing the situation, Shakespeare switches to direct address, again complimenting the fair youth on his beauty while gently and lovingly teasing the "tender churl" for not reproducing and encouraging him to change his mind on the subject. There's an implicit warning to the fair youth not to go to his grave without an heir in the words about burying his happiness and making waste through his miserly/niggardly behaviour.

The poem turns yet again into the final couplet, a command to "pity the world" and procreate or else be remembered as a stingy glutton.

The use of famine/gluttony and of death and waste imagery throughout the poem helps to unite it, and gives the poem an underlying weight of solemnity, despite the narrator's teasing tone.




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