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The amazing web site of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Further Commentary. Sonnet 1.

 

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Home Sonnets 1 - 50 Sonnets 51 - 100 Sonnets 101 - 154 A Lover's Complaint. Sonnet no. 1
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London Bridge   as it was in Shakespeare's day, circa 1600. Views of London   as it was in 1616. Views of  Cheapside  London, from a print of 1639. The Carrier's  Cosmography.   A guide to all the Carriers in London.  As given by John Taylor in 1637. Oxquarry Books Ltd

FURTHER COMMENTARY

SONNET I

     
 
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,
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,
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.
 

 
     


     

 Anyone who undertakes a commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets usually does so from the standpoint of one who has known them for many long years. It would be refreshing if they could be approached by one seeing them for the first time, so that the experience might be similar to that of plunging into a glacial pool, unknown and undipped into for many years by man or gods. Not so, however, for this present writer, and I must confess to an old acquaintance with them, to all the preconceptions that that acquaintance brings, and to all the dangers of weariness, lack of perception and satiety. Nevertheless, for this immediate task, I have attempted to look at each line afresh, and to ask myself 'Do I really understand what this line, or this word, or this sentence means?' The experience has been illuminating, and I have to admit in numerous instances that the mere habit of words engraved in the memory over many years was not enough to bring the obvious concomitant understanding which might be expected to walk beside it. Even with the excellent help now offered by such editors as Stephen Booth, Katherine Duncan-Jones, G Blakemore Evans, and John Kerrigan, and the commentaries of Helen Vendler, (for a link to her commentary on this sonnet see below), I find that perplexity still lingers. This is as true for me of Sonnet I as it is of the more well known 'difficult' sonnets later in the sequence.

HV in her commentary illuminates the wealth of material derived from literary, proverbial, biblical, and aphoristic sources, as well as those of common wisdom and friendly banter, which this sonnet contains, foreshadowing as it does the material of so many of the later ones (numerically later - it is innappropriate here to comment on possible or actual dates of composition). Yet for the understanding of individual words and phrases one is frequently thrown back upon one's own resources. For what is one to make of riper in l.3, bear his memory in l.4, contracted to thine own bright eyes in l.5, the whole of l.6, ditto for l.11, and by the grave and thee of l.14. Commentaries on words and phrases such as these are very necessary for the modern reader because the language has changed over the intervening 500 years, because of altered poetic conventions, and because in many cases they were ambiguous even when they were written, either deliberately or unconsciously so.

With regard to the riper who should by time decease, (l.3) one tends to ask 'riper in relation to what?' Is it the only herald of the gaudy spring who is deemed to be riper than his putative heir, and are we already talking about the decease of this individual, before we have even considered his growing to maturity? Surely ripeness is a quality we attribute to objects of middle and later age, to those in the autumn of their days, preparing to be borne away with white and bristly beard, but to attribute it to a lusty youth does not seem right and is alien to the matter. Why is the word of autumn used in this context? It could be that a generality is being stated, but we ought not therefore to allow that the youth, the lovely boy, should be consigned to musty ripeness and old age before his adult life has barely begun. I wonder whether or not the use of the term riper is somehow connected in advance by concatenation of sound with Time the reaper, who will collect the harvest brought about by the increase of fairest creatures, of corn, of seed, of sowing and of crops, but also with Time the grim reaper who prepares all for his scythe: the fair youth can become not only riper than his predestined heir, but the reaper also who prudently harvests the crop, and the final slayer who brings all things to their inevitable end. He is himself the slayer, the thing which is slain, and the thing which grows up to replace all this loss. Of course our understanding of the phrase is not necessarily helped by compounding it with other meanings, and it does not exactly make sense to say 'but as the riper, (Time, the reaper), should by time decease' the reality is that the phrase was not entirely intelligible in the first instance, and is enhanced, enriched, and given greater stability by having these other semi-conscious meanings attached to it. None of us knows how Shakespeare's mind worked, and what were the circumstances which gave rise to these poems, but the wealth of echoes and counter suggestions with which they appear to be filled leads one to think that, in the ferment of their creation, many half hidden meanings lay buried, which, in the fulness of time, came to have greater significance than at first he realised.

'His tender heir might bear his memory' should not cause the reader too much difficulty, except that the phrase bear his memory is slightly odd. It conveys the meaning not only of keeping the memory of something alive in one's mind, but also that of bearing an impress or imprint, as for example from a seal, and it also continues the image of fruition and increase through pregnancy, 'the second burthen of a former child', suggesting perhaps that passing on the memory of oneself through procreation and descent is a continuing process.

In a casual reading of this first sonnet one tends to pass over the next two lines
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
rather rapidly, as they seem to imply only that the youth is excessively narcissistic, and is burning up the light he should be shedding on the world in some sort of wasteful manner. But, for the sake of the sequence as a whole, which will take up these ideas again, it is important to try to clarify now what is being said. I think the difficulty arises primarily because of the concentration of imagery in a confined space: (legal) contracts, betrothal, contraction, reduction, impoverishment, eyes, brightness (which dazzles the eyes), Narcissism, light, flame, candle, burning, fuel, talents, waste, light under a bushel, etc. I quote here only what various editors have mentioned. One is left therefore with the paraphrase that the youth, shrunken to a pair of eyes only, or having made a compact with them, narcissistically devours himself, and like a candle burns up his own wax or tallow, or like any other form of light, (whatever was available in Shakespeare's day) burns up its own fuel. On a purely physiological level, it is impossible that eyes can function alone, as Shakespeare would no doubt have acknowledged, although he can still entertain the conceit that this is not so, as in Sonn. 46

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight.

Equally it is unclear how any flame can feed itself other than on self-substantial fuel, for that is the nature of a candle or a fire. It is best perhaps to emphasise the metaphorical meaning of these images and to see in them references to the soul of the person, his essence, the light he casts upon the world. The eyes are the windows of the soul, and by extension the soul itself, so that to make a contract with one's soul so as to starve the world of any profit from it is rather like making a Faustian contract with the devil. The result is to reduce everything to 'one's own deep-sunken eyes', as is claimed in the next sonnet, that is, to let it waste away until it becomes like the soul of a miser or heretic wasting away on his death bed. (See below however for an additional implication in deep-sunken eyes).

The fire and flame images are also metaphoric rather than particular, referring to the soul's essence, its light, its vitality. Candles are rather squalid by comparison, and one cannot press the actuality of the imagery too far. Hiding one's light under a bushel, if the light were a candle, might result in a conflagration in the barn. (Matt. v. 15). The light of the soul burns without any flame, without any fuel. Therefore it must not be squandered. The imagery of light is repeated again in the word 'herald' of l.10. For many I think this would conjure up the image of the morning star, the brightest star in the sky, and the fair youth becomes, by implication, even more dazzling.

All this light and radiance however becomes somewhat darkened and obscured in the next line, 'Within thine own bud buriest thy content'. It appears to have mainly a sexual connotation, indeed its predominant meaning is sexual, for in botanical terms a flower burying its own content within its own bud hardly makes sense. Taken in isolation the sexual application of the phrase would not be overt, but there are echoes in the next three sonnets which underline its meaning. Thus

Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
II

For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb,
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
III

Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give? ......

For having traffic with thy self alone, IV

Since III deals so obviously with the sexual duty of the husband in fathering children through sexual intercourse, it seems probable that these other assertions, as well as 'within thine own bud etc', are covert references to masturbation, one of the consequences of which, in male company, probably in Shakespeare's day also, would jokingly be foretold as 'deep-sunken eyes' II.7. Onan's sin precisely was to stop posterity, 'that he might not have children in his brother's name'. And devotional manuals probably referred coyly to the sin of self-abuse. my abuses, for example, in 121, refers to sexual misdemeanours. (See also the note by GBE to III 7-8, p119, where the word used is autoeroticism. And KDJ on IV 1-2, p118.) I need not over stress the point, for there is enough sexual matter in the sonnets for us to have long since innured ourselves to being shocked by them. The argument that Shakespeare could not possibly have used such language to a young nobleman depends on us actually establishing in advance what the relationship between a coterie of young men, with a sprinkling of some slightly older ones, might have been like, how free it was, how much it was governed by convention, and how much those conventions could be stretched or broken.

Within thine own bud buriest thy content, might crudely therefore be paraphrased as 'waste yourself by not bursting into flower', or 'spend all your time masturbating, instead of procreating', the latter meaning being hidden by the botanical imagery to which the poet could appeal if challenged on the too obvious sexual overtones of a poem addressed ostensibly to a young nobleman. Or at any rate to a young man, noble or otherwise, who appears soon enough hereafter to arouse the poet's passions and desires. Thus decency and decorum are saved, but the coterie of friends who are the recipients of the original poem were free to laugh at the more intimate content of the lines if they so wished, especially if they echoed what already they had been discussing among themselves.

The concluding couplet
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.
prompts the question 'What is due to the world, to the grave, to thee thyself, to anyone, in the great scheme and mystery of things?' In terms of this sonnet it is a duty to posterity, that posterity be created from beauty. It suggests also a reckoning, that the world keeps accounts and makes up a balance sheet, what is given and what is received. The theme is taken up many times, but this ending ties in rather beautifully with the final sonnet to the youth, the valedictory sonnet 126. In this one, it is Nature which does the accounting, but Nature is exchangeable with the world in this opening sonnet.

Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
CXXVI

Thus the sequence comes full circle. The account must be made up, and you , the youth, must settle it, and only then will Nature write upon it 'quietus est', you have played your part, home art gone and ta'en thy wages. Not before then will you be discharged. There is something strangely poignant about these lines, for one feels that the man who wrote them has travelled more than half the expanse of human experience. Whether his love was real or imaginary we need not ask too insistently, and probably we shall never know the historical details of it. What we have cause to be eternally grateful for is that he succeeded in writing about it.

     


Home Sonnets 1 - 50 Sonnets 51 - 100 Sonnets 101 - 154 A Lover's Complaint. Sonnet no. 1
First line index Title page and Thorpe's Dedication Some Introductory Notes to the Sonnets Sonnets as plain text 1-154 Text facsimiles Other related texts of the period
Picture Gallery
Thomas Wyatt Poems Other Authors General notes  for background details, general policies etc. Map of the site Valentine Poems
London Bridge   as it was in Shakespeare's day, circa 1600. Views of London   as it was in 1616. Views of  Cheapside  London, from a print of 1639. The Carrier's  Cosmography.   A guide to all the Carriers in London.  As given by John Taylor in 1637. Oxquarry Books Ltd

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