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Shakespeare Sonnet 1: “From fairest creatures we desire increase”

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 1: “From fairest creatures we desire increase”

The Shakespeare canon remains best known for its plays such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet, but that literary masterpiece also includes a sequence of 154 marvelously crafted sonnets. Various interpretations of the sonnets abound, but scholars and critics generally categorize the sonnets by thematic groups. For an introduction to the sequence, please visit “Overview of the Shakespeare Sonnet Sequence.”

Sonnet 1 belongs to the thematic group known as the "Marriage Sonnets," including sonnets 1-17. The speaker in the "Marriage Sonnets" has one goal in mind, to persuade a young man that he should marry and produce lovely heirs.

Sonnet 1: “From fairest creatures we desire increase”

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,
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, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 1

Commentary

The speaker begins his pleas to a young man to marry and produce beautiful children. He employs various arguments in his persuasion that endures through a series of at lest 17 sonnets.

First Quatrain: Humankind Desires Continued Generational Beauty

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:

The speaker asserts that nature and humanity wishes to be peopled by beautiful, pleasing specimens. The speaker has determined that this the young man, whom he address, possesses those qualities; therefore, the speaker has taken it upon himself to urge this beautiful young man to marry and produce children after his likeness. In comparing the young man to a rose, the speaker attempts to persuade the lad that just like the rose, his beauty will fade, but by following this older man’s council, he will pass his beauty to a new generation, and instead of "by time decrease," he will cause the fairest to increase upon the world.

Second Quatrain: A Selfish Lad

But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Continuing his persuasive mood, the speaker then scolds the lad for being selfish and stingy with his own self adulation. He accuses him: ". . . thou contracted to thine own bright eyes, / Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel." The young man’s conceit is starving society, causing a "a famine"; although the youngster possesses an "abundance" that he should share.

By marrying, the boy can bring about offspring who will possess that same beauty. The speaker insists that the lad is actually thwarting his own interests by keeping his prepossessing characteristics to himself. The speaker adopts a saddened facade to tell the young man that he thinks he is his own worst enemy, "to thy sweet self too cruel." The speaker uses cunning and flattery to achieve his goal.

Third Quatrain: Appealing to Vanity

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.

Apparently convinced that the accusation of selfishness is a winning strategy, the speaker again appeals to the young man’s vanity. Because the lad is only one person, if he fails to reproduce, he will remain only one and thus within himself "bur[y] his content." The speaker appeals to the "tender churl" to stop wasting his time and energy focusing on himself alone. He is worth so much more than mere temporal beauty, but only by reproducing can he correct that situation.

The Couplet: Usurping the World's Possessions

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

The speaker sums up his complaint succinctly. He accuses the young man, who has resisted his pleas to marry and produce lovely offspring, of consuming what belongs to the world. Beauty, charm, and all forms of loveliness are due the world from those who possess it, but if this young man fails to follow the advice of the speaker, not only will he cheat the world, he will cheat himself and find himself alone with nothing but "the grave."

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Michael Dudley Bard Identity: Becoming an Oxfordian

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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