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Analysis of Sonnet 1 by William Shakespeare

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's Sonnet 1

Sonnet 1 is the first of William Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, first published in 1609. The first seventeen are known as the procreation sonnets because they are aimed at the mysterious 'fair youth', urging him to marry and have offspring before it is too late.

The complete set of sonnets are separate soliloquies but combine to form one multi-faceted story, linked by various themes, symbols and motifs. In essence, they are about the relationship between poet and lover.

Sonnet 1 stands out because of its masterful structure and language, not to mention the complex use of metaphor and motif. Although it is a worthy first sonnet, many scholars believe it to have been one of the last written by Shakespeare, sometime between 1592 and 1599.

In it, the speaker urges the young man to get on with the job of procreating, to stop wasting precious time on himself. Like many a teacher to a star pupil who lacks willpower and get-up-and-go, there is a surplus of repetition as resistance sets in. The basic message is: have beautiful kids, life's too short you self-obsessed narcissist!

Whilst encouraging the young man to be fruitful and multiply, the speaker also introduces the idea of selfishness and pride.

The idea that a young man should be encouraged to marry and have children through literary means was not Shakespeare's alone. Dutch philosopher and writer Erasmus of Rotterdam published his epistle to a young man in 1518 on exactly the same theme—urging young males to marry and have kids.

Did William Shakespeare know of this publication? Being well-read, he almost certainly would have known of its existence. Whether he was inspired by it to write 17 sonnets is anyone's guess.

Sonnet 1

Sonnet 1

Sonnet 1: Metre

Iambic pentameter, trochee and spondee

Whilst iambic pentameter is the dominant metre there is a mix of trochee and spondee with iamb to create more texture in sound and to allow for a more expressive rhythm.

1. From fair / est crea / tures we / desire / increase,

This first line is mostly iambic pentameter, with a trochee, four feet of unstressed then stressed syllable, which sets the basic rhythm for the whole sonnet, give or take one or two later lines.

The noun increase is stressed on the first syllable, creating a trochee. The alliterative start is unusual because of the preposition but the meaning is pretty clear - the world wants beautiful people to have children. We is taken to mean 'the world' which at Shakespeare's time was the royal court and the upper classes.

2. That thereby beauty's rose might never die,

Iambic pentameter again, with more alliteration. The focal point of the line is the rose (in the original 1609 version it has a capital Rose), which is beauty's truth, not beauty per se. This is important because it is a contrast to society's false beauty. The internal rhyme of thereby/die means the line holds tightly to this idea of long-lasting truth.

3. But as the riper should by time decease,

Regular rhythm again, with assonance (riper/time) to help bind the line. The basic meaning here is that as we get older and ripen we soon die. Note the stress on the second syllable of decease completely contrasting with the first line's increase.

4. His tender heir might bear his memory;

Same rhythm this time with double alliteration and a sequence which involves the subtle near rhyme heir/bear and a pun on bear—to bare, one's soul perhaps.

Further Line-by-Line Analysis

The second quatrain is much more challenging metrically and the language more ambiguous, reflecting the difficulty the speaker has.

5. But thou, / contract / ed to / thine own / bright eyes,

This line includes a pyrrhic foot—the third—and a spondee, at the end, making this line, the start of the second quatrain, a focal point of the sonnet. Spondees tend to bring energy and emphasis with the double stress and in this case are a contrast to the mid-line pyrrhic, which is soft and quick.

Why the change in metre? Well, this line is aimed directly at the young man so is of great import. The change adds gravitas. The speaker is suggesting that this fair youth is overly bound up in his own looks—contracted could mean both pledged and limited.

6. Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,

The opening trochee increases the tension building up from the previous line. The challenging consonants of f and l and s in such an alliterative clause make great demands on pronunciation for the reader.

Here the speaker is suggesting that this fair youth is too wrapped up in himself, burning the candle at both ends and not sharing his light with the world.

7. Making a famine where abundance lies,

Another trochee begins this line, which then proceeds iambically. Relative to some of the other lines the seventh is clear antithesis—famine/abundance. The speaker is having a go again, implying that the fair youth has so much to give to the world but offers only meagre scraps.

8. Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Back to regular iambic pentameter for the last line of the second quatrain. Full of alliteration, which provides texture and interest, there is also repetition which pushes home the message—this guy, this fair youth has a sweet personality but he is his own worst enemy.

Third Quatrain

The relentless onslaught continues, the speaker asserting that the young man in question is basically wasting his gift and his life.

9. Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament

The opening trochee alters the rhythm and is a mirror image of the dominant iamb, so the speaker is making a point—pointing a finger directly at this fair youth—and saying that this guy is the most handsome thing around. Such flattery comes with the first example of enjambment, a punctuation-free continuation into the next line.

10. And on / ly her / ald to / the gaud / y spring,

The speaker's attempts to cajole the fair youth into marriage and fatherhood take the reader into a metaphorical Nature and the season of spring, the time for love, romance and conception. The word herald means a sign of something about to happen, in this case excessively showy spring.

Note the pyrrhic foot (two unstressed syllables) in this scansion which quickens and quietens the line in readiness for the steady iambic finish.

  • 11. Within / thine own / bud buri / est thy / content

Nature is uppermost in the narrative again with this reference to the rose (bud), the speaker suggesting that all of the youth's potential is buried, tight held in the non-blooming bud.

Note the regular iambics in this scansion plus the spondee (bud buri) in the middle. There are some who prefer a double spondee (thine own bud buri) and still others who read this as a pyrrhic plus spondee (thine own bud buri).

And for the second time, enjambment takes us into the twelfth line.

  • 12. And, ten / der churl, / mak'st waste / in nigg / arding.

Shakespeare's penchant for opposites, for antithesis, is beautifully displayed in this line. Tender, repeated from line 4, suggests youth and gentleness, whilst churl is a mean-spirited peasant, a low ranker. And niggarding is to be miserly—such a waste of time and energy.

Note the spondee in the middle of the line, echoing the previous line, the speaker's final attempt to persuade his wasteful friend.

13. Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

The world's losses each day should be acknowledged and felt. Don't be greedy by consuming more than you need, starving others.

The trochee reverses the dominant rhythm again, highlighting the imperative.

14. To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

The world needs your offspring but you've denied it, not only with your own death but by leaving this world childless.

Rhyme Scheme

Sonnet 1 is a classic Shakespearean or English sonnet, having 14 lines, made up of an octet, a quatrain and an end couplet. Typically, an argument or problem is set up in the octet and the solution or conclusion given in the remaining six lines.

The turn or volta in Sonnet 1 is not that easy to pinpoint. There are perhaps two: at line 5 and line 13, in the couplet. The first twelve lines are like three mini-dramas in one. So this sonnet is heavy on the problem and relatively light on the solution.


The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg and all are full except for the half-rhyme of lines 2 and 4 : die/memory.

Internal rhymes, together with consonance, assonance and alliteration, form quite a strong bond within this sonnet and help keep the lines tightly together. Note the following:

line 1 - creatures/increase.

line 2 - That thereby...might/die.

line 3 - riper/time.

line 4 - His tender heir ...bear his...might/memory

line 5 - thou/thine...bright.

line 6 - Feed'st/flame/fuel.

line 7 - Making a famine.

line 8 - Thyself thy...thy sweet self.

line 9 - Thou that

line 10 - gaudy half-rhymes with ornament from line 9.

line 11 - bud buriest.

line 12 - mak'st waste.

line 13 - Pity/be.

line 14 - eat/thee.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey