Sonnet 1 in the 1609 Quarto
Sonnet 1 is the first in a series of 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare that were published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe. Nineteenth-century critics thought Thorpe might have published the poems without Shakespeare's consent; Sidney Lee called him "predatory and irresponsible." Conversely, modern scholars Wells and Taylor assert their verdict that "Thorpe was a reputable publisher, and there is nothing intrinsically irregular about his publication." Either way, this sonnet is considered the first in the sequence. Analyzing the sonnets in this order allows for an underlying story of a love triangle to emerge. Sonnet 1 is part of the "Fair Youth" sonnets, in which an unnamed young man (the beloved) is being addressed by the speaker (the lover) and later sonnets also refer to a "dark lady" (thus they are called the "Dark Lady" sonnets). Patrick Cheney comments on this: "Beginning with a putatively male speaker imploring a beautiful young man to reproduce, and concluding with a series of poems – the dark lady poems – that affiliate consummated heterosexual passion with incurable disease, Shakespeare's Sonnets radically and deliberately disrupt the conventional narrative of erotic courtship". Because of this, Sonnet 1 instantly attracts interest as being a kind of introduction (or possibly an index) to the rest of the sonnets. The 1st sonnet is also the first of the "procreation sonnets" (sonnets 1 – 17; including Sonnet 15 which, although it does not directly contain an encouragement to procreate is fully part of the sequence as it forms a diptych with Sonnet 16—note Sonnet 16 starts with the word "But..."—which does), which urge this youth to not waste his beauty by failing to marry or reproduce. Joseph Pequigney notes: "... the opening movement give[s the] expression to one compelling case... The first mode of preservation entertained is procreation, which is urged without letup in the first fourteen poems and twice again".
The identity of the beloved "Fair Youth" has remained a mystery, but most researchers believe there are two potential candidates for whom the dedication of the "Fair Youth" Sonnets was written: "Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton (1573-1624), or William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke (1580-1630)". Both were patrons of Shakespeare but at different times – Wriothesley in the 1590s and Herbert in the 1600s. There is trouble finding out which earl it might have been because sonnets were in fashion in the 1590s but Shakespeare's were not published until 1609.
In Sonnet 1, we begin to see the "love story" between the fair youth (beloved) and the speaker (lover) unfold, though not the typical "love story" of the Elizabethan era if read this way. However, each of Shakespeare's sonnets can still be read as separate from the other sonnets. In this sonnet, the speaker engages in an argument with the beloved/fair youth about procreation: "An agon, a dramatic struggle, develops between the speaker and the youth". Scholar Helen Vendler sums up Sonnet 1: "The different rhetorical moments of this sonnet (generalizing reflection, reproach, injunction, prophecy) are permeable to one another's metaphors, so that the rose of philosophical reflection yields the bud of direct address, and the famine of address yields the glutton who, in epigram, eats the world's due".
Shakespeare's sonnets do not exactly adhere to the norms of the sonnet form established by the Italian poet, Petrarch. According to Robert Matz, "Shakespeare transforms the sonnet convention". Shakespeare brings in topics and themes that were unusual at the time. Shakespeare's audience would have interpreted such an aggressive tone as entirely improper encouragement of procreation. In fact, the other sonnets of the time revered chastity. However, Shakespeare "does not engage in stock exaltation of the chastity of the beloved, but instead accuses the young man of gluttonous self-consumption in his refusal to produce a 'tender heir' who would continue his beauty beyond the inexorable decay of aging". Sonnets are often about romantic love between the speaker and the beloved but Shakespeare does not do this. Instead, Shakespeare urges the young man, the beloved, to have sex and procreate with a woman in marriage. Marriage in Shakespeare's time was mainly functional. If in fact Shakespeare’s sonnet was about a beloved that was a man, then this was an entirely new concept.
Context for Sonnet 1
This sonnet is important because it is the first one that Shakespeare gives us. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection of sonnets. According to Helen Vendler, this sonnet can be “as an index to the rest of the sonnets". The main reason she says that it is important is because it brings "into play such a plethora of conceptual material; it seems a self-conscious groundwork laid for the rest". Scholars like Helen Vendler think that this particular sonnet may have been composed after the others. She says that because of the "sheer abundance of values, images, and concepts important in the sequence which are called into play" and "the number of significant words brought to our attention" in this sonnet, that it "may have been deliberately composed late, as a 'preface' to the others". Philip Martin says that Sonnet 1 is important to the rest because it "states the themes for the sonnets immediately following and also for the sequence at large". To him, the themes are announced in this sonnet and the later ones develop those themes. Joseph Pequigney says that Sonnet 1 does serve an introductory and does it unconventionally; "it might on that very account be seen as a befitting way to begin the least conventional of Renaissance love-sonnet sequences". It provides a "production of metaphorical motifs that will recur in the upcoming sonnets, particularly in the next fourteen or so; it gives the concepts of beauty and time and their interrelationship, as also the emblem of the rose, all of which carry the weight in the other sonnets; and it shows the theme of reproduction, to be taken up in all except one of the sixteen ensuing poems".
Many scholars think that the sonnets were composed as a story, with the first 126 being about a young man known as the "Fair Youth". Donald A. Stauffer says that they "may not be in an order which is absolutely correct but no one can deny that they are related and that they do show some development some 'story' even if incomplete and unsatisfactory".
Form and structure
Sonnet 1 has the traditional characteristics of a Shakespearean sonnet—three quatrains and a couplet written in iambic pentameter with an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. Many of Shakespeare's sonnets also reflect the two-part structure of the Italian Petrarchan Sonnet. In this type of sonnet (though not in Sonnet 1) "the first eight lines are logically or metaphorically set against the last six [and] an octave-generalization will be followed by a particular sestet-application, an octave question will be followed by a sestet answer or at least a quatrain answer before the summarizing couplet". Shakespeare does employ this type of sonnet but also mixes it with a bit of his own inventiveness. It is through the "character of the speaker, the only voice that Shakespeare allows us to hear" the inventiveness of his story.
In lines one through four of this sonnet, Shakespeare writes about increasing and references memory. Here, Shakespeare chooses to rhyme "increase" and "decease", "die" and "memory" and then proceeds to use "eyes" and "lies", "fuel" and "cruel" as rhymes in the second quatrain (lines five through eight). In lines five through twelve, Shakespeare shifts to famine and waste. Carl Atkins highlights Shakespeare's inventiveness in the second quatrain, where the sonnet takes on a less-regular rhythm: "We note Shakespeare's consummate ability to mimic colloquial speech so that the sonnet sounds personal and conversational, rather than sententious. Rhythm has an important role here. Thus, we have the triple emphasis produced by the final spondee of line 5, so effective after the regular iambic pentameter of all that precedes it. This is then followed by the flowing trochee-iamb that begins the next line, a combination that will be repeated frequently".
In the third quatrain, the key rhyming words given by the speaker are: "ornament" and "content", and "spring" and "niggarding"; additional images are presented in this quatrain, such as "fresh", "herald", "bud", "burial", and the oxymoron "tender churl". Other words and themes the speaker uses are explained by Helen Vendler: "The concepts – because Shakespeare's mind works by contrastive taxonomy – tend to be summoned in pairs: increase and decrease, ripening and dying; beauty and immortality versus memory and inheritance; expansion and contraction; inner spirit (eyes) and outward show (bud); self-consumption and dispersal, famine and abundance". Shakespeare uses these words to make "an aesthetic investment in profusion". The meaning found in these lines and words shows how the young man's refusal to procreate is a refusal of his flesh, a wasting of it.
Lastly, Shakespeare finishes the sonnet (as expected) with a couplet: two consecutive rhyming lines. Each line contains ten syllables, and the second line is composed only of one-syllable words. Some scholars attribute the monosyllable closing line of the poem as a tribute to 16th century poet, George Gascoigne. Gascoigne is quoted as saying, "The more monosyllables that you use, the truer Englishman you shall seemed, and the less you shall smell of the Inkhorn".
It is in this final quatrain and the concluding couplet we see one final change. The couplet of the poem describes the seemingly selfish nature of the beloved (Shakespeare chooses to rhyme "be" and "thee" here). By making the choice to not procreate, Shakespeare describes how the beloved is denying what the world deserves (his bloodline). Instead of ending the sonnet on a positive note or feeling while alternating between dark and bright tones, the tone of the couplet is negative since the sonnet is overshadowed by the themes of blame, self-interest, and famine in both quatrains two and three.
The first line illustrates a regular iambic pentameter, while the seventh illustrates the most frequent variation: an initial reversal.
× / × / × / × / × / From fairest creatures we desire increase, (1.1) / × × / × / × / × / Making a famine where abundance lies, (1.7)
- / = ictus, a metrically strong syllabic position. × = nonictus.
Helen Vendler comments on the overall significance of this sonnet: "When God saw his creatures, he commanded them to increase and multiply. Shakespeare, in this first sonnet of the sequence, suggests we have internalized the paradisal command in an aestheticized form: From fairest creatures we desire increase. The sonnet begins, so to speak, in the desire for an Eden where beauty’s rose will never die; but the fall quickly arrives with decease. Unless the young man pities the world, and consents to his own increase, even a successively self-renewing Eden is unavailable". Kenneth Larsen notes that Shakespeare does not begin his sequence with a customary dedicatory sonnet. Larsen also claims that the sonnet's first line, mentioned above, echoes Genesis, the "locus biblicus of openings". The expectation recalls God’s command, “bring ye forth fruite & multiplie: grow plentifully in the earth, and increase therein” (9.10; GV). 
Similar to the Petrarchan sonnet writers, Shakespeare begins Sonnet 1 with the exaltation of the beloved's physical beauty, before changing to a tone of contempt for the beloved's lack of a desire for an heir. However, according to Robert Matz, "Sonnet 1 is so far from the romantic desires we usually associate with sonnets that no woman is even mentioned in it... But while there is no woman in this sonnet it is not the case that there is no desire. On the contrary, Shakespeare continually expresses his desire for the young man whom he calls 'beauty's rose' and who, he warns, must like a rose reproduce himself". The allusion to the rose is a particularly significant because it was uncommon for the rose, a symbol for femininity, to be used to refer to a man. At the end of the first quatrain, Shakespeare's pun on the word "tender" (to mean both the obvious meaning of youth and beauty and the less obvious sense of currency to alleviate a debt) further illustrates the beloved's need to reproduce in order to pay off his debt of chastity.
In the second quatrain, the sonnet shifts from a positive tone of admiration in the first quatrain to a somewhat more critical tone. The speaker says that the young man is not only betrothed to himself, but is also eating away at himself and leaving nothing behind where there could be "abundance", thus making the young man his own enemy. Line five, "But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes", is not only complimenting the young man, but is also scolding him for "refusing sexual relations". Shakespeare then goes on to give the imagery of a candle eating itself, "Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel", which can be tied to gluttony in the thirteenth line. In the last two lines of the second quatrain, "Making a famine where abundance lies, Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel", Shakespeare uses the paradoxes of "famine" and "abundance" and then "sweet self" and "cruel" to describe the selfishness of the young man. To the speaker, it is a crime against man and nature to just simply eat away at "the world's due" without reproduction.
In the third quatrain, the beloved becomes "now the world's fresh ornament". "Fresh" meaning new, young, beautiful, and vital and "now" perhaps meaning that the world did have another ornament before the youth but that those are gone and perhaps soon so will the youth. The next line, "and only herald to the gaudy spring", means that the beloved is promised for life and growth just like each spring is. But "within thine own bud buriest thy content", the youth only keeps his beauty and life to himself, instead of letting the world see in bloom. The word "buriest" suggests the youth digging his own grave and the end to his beauty. According to Philip J.T. Martin, in this line "content" means "'all that he contains', which of course includes the power to beget children, and at the same time it means his 'contentment', now and more especially in the future, and the contentment which he could give to others". In the next line, "and, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding", the speaker uses the paradox of the tender churl that makes waste in niggarding as the beginning of the turning point for the sonnet. He is setting up the couplet by saying that the youth is a worthless fellow by sinning and not procreating but that the speaker still loves him for his tenderness. The main theme of this quatrain ends with this line and it is that the youth may be a "bud" but can be the flower to the world and to not bloom is to make waste in that potential through one's own self-indulgence. To some scholars today, such as Helen Vendler, quatrain three is used a "delay in wonder and admiration" of the youth by the speaker. Philip Martin describes the third quatrain as a "tone of self-love, as the poet sees it in the youth" and it is "not praise alone, nor blame alone; not one and then the other; but both at once".
The couplet changes the tone of adoration and idolatry in the previous three quatrains with an extremely assertive proclamation of the beloved's intrinsic need to procreate (or more specifically, the world's intrinsic need of his procreation). Shakespeare contrasts the allusions to a famine in the second quatrain with allusions to gluttony by saying that the beloved is "eat[ing] the world's due" by dying without offspring. The fact that the rhythmic structure of the couplet (particularly "by the grave and thee") is so linear and simple exemplifies to some scholars Shakespeare's "consummate ability to mimic colloquial speech so that the sonnet sounds personal and conversational, rather than sententious", and that upon first reading, one may be granted the ability to absorb more of the author's message as opposed to a close contextual reading. The ominous tone in the couplet serves as a prophetic threat of an empty death without offspring to carry on the beloved's legacy.
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- Cheney, Patrick. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print, pg. 128.
- Cheney, Patrick. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print, pg. 128
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- Pequigney, Joseph. Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. Print, pg. 7.
- Crosman, Robert. "Making Love out of Nothing at All: The Issue of Story in Shakespeare's Procreation Sonnets". Shakespeare Quarterly 41.4 (1990): 470-488. Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University. Web, pg. 477.
- Bennett, Kenneth C. Threading Shakespeare's Sonnets. Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest College, 2007. Print, pg. 2.
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- Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print, pg. 47.
- (Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print, pg. 47.)
- Martin, Philip J. T. Shakespeare's Sonnets; Self, Love and Art. New York City, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1972. Print, pg. 20.
- Pequigney, Joseph. Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. Print, pg. 9.
- Pequigney, Joseph. Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. Print, pg. 9.
- Crosman, Robert. "Making Love out of Nothing at All: The Issue of Story in Shakespeare's Procreation Sonnets". Shakespeare Quarterly 41.4 (1990): 470-488. Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University. Web, pg. 470.
- Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1997. Print, pg. 50.
- Bennett, Kenneth C. Threading Shakespeare's Sonnets. Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest College, 2007. Print, pg. 1.
- Atkins, Carl D. and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007. Print, pg. 32.
- "The Sonnets - 1." Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Ed. Carl D. Atkins. Cranbury, NJ: Rosemont and Printing, 2007. Print, pg. 31-32.
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- Larsen, Kenneth J. "Sonnet 1", Essays on Shakespeare's Sonnets. http://www.williamshakespeare-sonnets.com/sonnet-1
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- (Bennett, Kenneth C. Threading Shakespeare's Sonnets. Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest College, 2007. Print, pg. 22.)
- Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print, pg. 51.
- Martin, Philip J. T. Shakespeare's Sonnets; Self, Love and Art. New York City, NY:Cambridge University Press, 1972. Print, pg. 20.)
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- First edition and facsimile
- Shakespeare, William (1609). Shake-speares Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted. London: Thomas Thorpe.
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1905). Shakespeares Sonnets: Being a reproduction in facsimile of the first edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 458829162.
- Variorum editions
- Alden, Raymond Macdonald, ed. (1916). The Sonnets of Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. OCLC 234756.
- Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. (1944). A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Sonnets [2 Volumes]. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. OCLC 6028485.
- Modern critical editions
- Atkins, Carl D., ed. (2007). Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-4163-7. OCLC 86090499.
- Booth, Stephen, ed. (2000) [1st ed. 1977]. Shakespeare's Sonnets (Rev. ed.). New Haven: Yale Nota Bene. ISBN 0-300-01959-9. OCLC 2968040.
- Burrow, Colin, ed. (2002). The Complete Sonnets and Poems. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0192819338. OCLC 48532938.
- Duncan-Jones, Katherine, ed. (2010) [1st ed. 1997]. Shakespeare's Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series (Rev. ed.). London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-4080-1797-5. OCLC 755065951.
- Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. (1996). The Sonnets. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521294034. OCLC 32272082.
- Kerrigan, John, ed. (1995) [1st ed. 1986]. The Sonnets ; and, A Lover's Complaint. New Penguin Shakespeare (Rev. ed.). Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-070732-8. OCLC 15018446.
- Mowat, Barbara A.; Werstine, Paul, eds. (2006). Shakespeare's Sonnets & Poems. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Washington Square Press. ISBN 978-0743273282. OCLC 64594469.
- Orgel, Stephen, ed. (2001). The Sonnets. The Pelican Shakespeare (Rev. ed.). New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0140714531. OCLC 46683809.
- Vendler, Helen, ed. (1997). The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-63712-7. OCLC 36806589.