Sonnet 1 | Shakespeare's Sonnets Unpacked
Sonnet 1 by Shakespeare

Sonnet 1

Written by on | Shakespeare

Sonnet I, the start, and where to start? Well, we can think of it like this. When you listen to an album, is the best or most popular song usually the very first one the album? No, not usually, but it is however, usually the one that serves as a sort of prelude of what’s to come. Shakespeare’s first sonnet functions just like that. It’s by no stretch of the imagination his best, but it does outline many of Shakespeare’s core themes not only in the sonnets but throughout his work. There’s love, beauty, time, frustration, anger, legacy, life, and death. Anything you could want from Shakespeare you’ll most likely be able to find in this sonnet. No matter how deep you dig with sonnet I, you’ll always find more, so let’s take a look.

Read More: Best Shakespeare Sonnets

Sonnet I (Original Text)

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.

Verse Breakdown

Bold = Stressed
Unbold = Unstressed
ABCDEFG: Rhyming pattern

First Quatrain
From fairest creatures we desire increase, A
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die, B
But as the riper should by time decease A
His tender heir might bear his memory. B

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

Third Quatrain
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament E
And only herald to the gaudy spring, F
Within thine own bud buriest thy content, E
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding. F

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

Modern Translation

From the most beautiful people we want children to be born
So that their beauty may never die
As the parent may die
Their child might bear their beautiful memory
But you who are preoccupied with your own beautiful eyes
Only give the beauty to yourself
Starving others when there’s plenty to be shared
You make yourself you own enemy, you are too cruel to yourself
You that are now the beautiful young thing
You are the only person who is as beautiful as the spring
You’re letting your beauty wither and die
You may be a young man but you behave like a miser
Grant pity to others or else you’ll be remembered as a glutton
Who hogged their beauty and took it with them to the grave

 

Thought Breakdown and Analysis

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
From the most beautiful we people we want children.
Pretty straight forward thought line here.

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
So that their beauty might live forever.
We want beautiful people to have children so that their beauty never goes away.

But as the riper should by time decease
If the parent, the origin of the beauty, should die
This is an enjambed line. Meaning it has no pause between lines of verse. So if the parent dies…

His tender heir might bear his memory.
His child might carry on his beauty.
If the parent dies, their beauty lives on in the child. Also interesting to note the use of not one, but two masculine pronouns here. Is this that classic thing of old writers automatically referring to people as men? Or is there more to it. Well there’s a lot of evidence throughout the rest of the sonnets to indicate that these (or at least the first 17) are directed at a young man, and are about a poet’s love and adoration for said young man. This may be, depending on how you read it, the first marker pointing us in this direction.

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
But you are more engaged or stuck in your own beautiful eyes.
Again quite straightforward here.

Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel
You only feed yourself with your beauty. Or, you only share your beauty with yourself. You’re so caught up on yourself that only you can enjoy your magnificence.

Making a famine where abundance lies,
Making others starve when there’s plenty to go around.
Again all tied to what we’ve said before. You starve others of your beauty because you are so preoccupied with yourself when there’s plenty of your beauty to share.

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
You make yourself your own worst enemy. You are so cruel to yourself.

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
You that are now the pretty young thing, the world’s newest gift.

And only herald to the gaudy spring,
And your only contender is the bright spring, and even springs being given a run for its money.
So you, that are the most beautiful thing in the world right now, even more so than spring. Also enjambment.

Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
You are a beautiful flower but you are letting yourself wither and die.

And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
You may be a young man but you’re acting like a miser.
He’s saying the young man is hogging all of the beauty to himself. A miser is like a scrooge or a cheapskate.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
Please grant pity to the rest of the world or you’ll be remembered as a glutton.
Kind of straight forward. Essentially they’re almost begging the young man now. Asking for pity. Quite strong language for what started as a sort of love poem? But it’s Shakespeare, that’s kind of his thing.

To eat the worlds due, by the grave and thee.
You’ll eat or horde all of the beauty that could feed the world and take it all with you to your grave.

So essentially this young man is very beautiful, and they’re self-centred that they’re hogging all of their beauty to themself. If they don’t share their beauty with the world they’ll be remember as a glutton and take their beauty with them to the grave.

Unfamiliar Language

Creature (n.) created being
Contract (v.) betroth, engage
Self-substantial (adj.) old form: selfe substantiall: using substance from one’s own body
Gaudy (adj.)bright, brilliant, shining
Content (n.)contentment, peace of mind
Niggarding (n.)hoarding, begrudging, acting in a mean manner
Churl (n.)[term of endearment] wretch, miser, villain

So there you have it, an in-depth look at Sonnet I, by William Shakespeare himself! Any questions about this sonnet or the breakdown? Comment below.

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

twelve + 20 =