Shakespeare Sonnet #1

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1609 quarto Image: The British Library


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[ref]Contracted as in a marriage contract; betrothed. OED contract as a verb: “To enter into an agreement or contract.” Also contracted adj. “Drawn into smaller compass; narrowed, shortened, shrunken, etc.”[/ref] 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[ref]Content see OED content n2 1a “Satisfaction, pleasure; a contented condition” but also OED content n1 “That which is contained in anything.”[/ref],
And, tender[ref]Tender ; a tender is “One who tends, or waits upon, another; an attendant, nurse, ministrant” (s.v. OED tender n1).[/ref] churl, mak’st waste in niggarding[ref]Niggarding is Shakespeare’s coinage, derived from the Scandinavian loan-word niggard, a miser. All three of the OED’s entries for niggard, niggardly, niggarding use context quotations from Shakespeare, including this line for niggarding,which is the only example for a word marked “rare.”[/ref]:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
This sonnet is generally considered part of the sequence from 1–17 that appear to urge a young man to produce an heir. It has the typical Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme; ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, and the three quatrains and a couplet structure, neither of which were actually invented by Shakespeare, though he employs both with exquisite skill.
The first line “from fairest creatures we desire increase” is a reference to reproduction. The poet refers to wanting beauty to reproduce and bear children and thereby gain immortality. At the same time, given Shakespeare’s fondness for playing havoc with word order, “we desire increase” can also mean “our desire increases.”
“But as the riper should by time decease” continues the idea of a parent and offspring from the first two lines. despite the nature of life, that with age, “the riper” will because of time, “decease,” or die. Tender serves double-duty; both as soft or delicate because of youth, and as a noun; an attendant. There is in addition, given the legal context of any discussion of an heir, the meaning of tender (OED tender n2) “a formal offer.”
In the fourth line the anonymous creature becomes “he”by virtue of the repeated “his” and the concept of an heir enters the poem. This line is the pivot on which those readers who think that Shakespeare was addressing a specific aristocratic male and urging reproduction (and the creation of an heir) turns.
Contracted in line 5 means both “someone who has agreed to a contract” or betrothed, and possibly also “reduced in size.” He is married to himself; his compass has been reduced to his own person. He is thus self-consuming, and “making a famine where abundance lies” by ignoring other potential suitors, other “contracts.”
With the start of the third stanza the poet continues the flower metaphor begun with the reference to the rose in line 2, describing the youth as the “only herald to the gaudy spring.” This line always makes me think of Chaucer’s description of the Squire in the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, and to the closely related Spring images of a “young and lusty bachelor” in the May calendar images of books of hours.
In line 11 “Within thine own bud buriest thy content” Shakespeare returns to the rose metaphor of the second line. Bud is ostensibly self-explanatory in the context of the rose; an unopened immature blossom. The youth is burying his own content, his own happiness, within his own bud. By not reproducing he buries (as if hidden in a grave) his own future happiness. Note that content means not only “contentment” or happiness but content, something contained. The youth “contains” the potential for progeny, for fatherhood, and, the poet argues fatherhood would make him (and presumably the world) feel content.
I can’t help but see bud in the context of producing progeny as a phallic reference. Particularly given this couplet:
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding:
He buries his happiness within his own bud, and “mak’st waste in niggarding.” By not fathering progeny, he is wasting his potential by keeping his content to himself.
The final couplet in this sonnet is a summary argument for the preceding stanzas:

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

That is, pity the world, who would lose his beauty, and reproduce, or “eat” the world’s due by not reproducing, and thus being swallowed by the grave, the grave foreshadowed by the reference to “bury” in line 11. In this closing couplet the motifs built around the theme of eating and of death join.

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