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.
The first sonnet takes it as a given that “From fairest creatures we desire increase”—that is, that we desire beautiful creatures to multiply, in order to preserve their “beauty’s rose” for the world. That way, when the parent dies (“as the riper should by time decease”), the child might continue its beauty (“His tender heir might bear his memory”). In the second quatrain, the speaker chides the young man he loves for being too self-absorbed to think of procreation: he is “contracted” to his own “bright eyes,” and feeds his light with the fuel of his own loveliness. The speaker says that this makes the young man his own unwitting enemy, for it makes “a famine where abundance lies,” and hoards all the young man’s beauty for himself. In the third quatrain, he argues that the young man may now be beautiful—he is “the world’s fresh ornament / And only herald to the gaudy spring”—but that, in time, his beauty will fade, and he will bury his “content” within his flower’s own bud (that is, he will not pass his beauty on; it will wither with him). In the couplet, the speaker asks the young man to “pity the world” and reproduce, or else be a glutton who, like the grave, eats the beauty he owes to the whole world.
The first sonnet introduces many of the themes that will define the sequence: beauty, the passage of human life in time, the ideas of virtue and wasteful self-consumption (“thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes”), and the love the speaker bears for the young man, which causes him to elevate the young man above the whole world, and to consider his procreation a form of “pity” for the rest of the earth. Sonnet 1opens not only the entire sequence of sonnets, but also the first mini-sequence, a group comprising the first seventeen sonnets, often called the “procreation” sonnets because they each urge the young man to bear children as an act of defiance against time.
The logical structure of Sonnet 1is relatively simple: the first quatrain states the moral premise, that beauty should strive to propagate itself; the second quatrain accuses the young man of violating that moral premise, by wasting his beauty on himself alone; the third quatrain gives him an urgent reason to change his ways and obey the moral premise, because otherwise his beauty will wither and disappear; and the couplet summarizes the argument with a new exhortation to “pity the world” and father a child. Some of the metaphoric images in the poem, however, are quite complex. The image of the young man contracted to his own bright eyes, feeding his “light’s flame” with “self-substantial fuel,” for instance, is an extremely intricate image of self-absorption, and looks forward to the final image of Sonnet 73, in which old age is depicted as the snuffing of a fire by the ashes of the wood it was once “nourished by”—almost its self-substantial fuel.
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