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Shakespeare's Sonnets

sonnetIV

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty's legacy?
Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
   Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
   Which, used, lives th' executor to be.

The youth is urged once again not to throw away without regard the beauty which is his to perfection. It is Nature's gift, but only given on condition that it is used to profit the world, that is, by handing it on to future generations. An analogy is drawn from money-lending: the usurer should use his money wisely. Yet the young man has dealings with himself alone, and cannot give a satisfactory account of time well spent. If he continues to behave in such a way, his beauty will die with him, whereas he could leave inheritors to benefit from his legacy.

The 1609 Quarto Version

VNthrifty louelineſſe why doſt thou ſpend,
Vpon thy ſelfe thy beauties legacy?
Natures bequeſt giues nothing but doth lend,
And being franck ſhe lends to thoſe are free:
Then beautious nigard why dooſt thou abuſe,
The bountious largeſſe giuen thee to giue?
Profitles vſerer why dooſt thou vſe
So great a ſumme of ſummes yet can'ſt not liue?
For hauing traffike with thy ſelfe alone,
Thou of thy ſelfe thy ſweet ſelfe doſt deceaue,
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable Audit can'ſt thou leaue?
   Thy vnuſ'd beauty muſt be tomb'd with thee,
   Which vſed liues th'executor to be.

Commentary

1. Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Unthrifty = Unsaving, wasteful., prodigal.
loveliness - this is personified as the youth. The youth is beauty itself.
1-2. Why dost thou spend/ upon thyself - As well as the financial sense of squandering wealth and resources, this also has a secondary sexual reference of emitting semen . Compare :
He wears his honour in a box unseen
That hugs his kicky wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
AW.II.3.272-5.
2. Upon thy self thy beauty's legacy?

upon thy self - see the note above. The implication is that all his pleasure is wasted upon himself.
thy beauty's legacy = the riches that your beauty should leave to the world when you are gone (your children). The legacy of beauteous children should be created by his semen which he is wasting instead in frivolous self pleasure.

3. Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
Nature's bequest = the qualities, talents, attributes, which are provided by Nature at birth. Nature, however, does not give outright, but only makes a loan. She expects repayment of the loan with interest (in the form of gifts to the world).
4. And being frank she lends to those are free:
frank = generous, liberal;
to those are free = to those who are open hearted, free spirited. Nature expects a reciprocal response to her gift.
5. Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
niggard = miserly person; stingy and selfish individual.
abuse = ill treat. Also with a suggestion of self-abuse, masturbation. The use of niggard(ing) here and in I.12 in a similar context suggests a slang meaning of tosser, wanker.
6. The bounteous largess given thee to give?
The inheritance (of beauty etc.) which was given to you so that you might pass it on. largess = generous bestowal of good qualities.
7. Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
The comparison of the youth with a usurer (money-lender), albeit a profitless (unsuccessful) one, is not very flattering. Perhaps it was meant to stir him into action which would remedy the situation. use is intended both in the technical sense of lending money as a usurer, as well as that of making use of (his beauty) by procreating.
8. So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?

So great a sum of sums - Usurers had large sums of money at their disposal. They performed financial services which are nowadays done by banks.
yet canst not live - the poet here compares the usurer who makes a comfortable living from the interest he charges, with the youth who has so much wealth of beauty, yet cannot live (survive) into the future.

9. For having traffic with thy self alone,
i.e by not dealing in the commodities which nature has bestowed upon you (nobility, beauty, wealth). The sexual meaning of masturbation is fairly explicit.
10. Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
You deprive yourself of children, who are, in a sense, yourself; you deceive, cheat yourself.
of thy self could mean 'by your own action'. deceive = cheat.
11. Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,

Then how - the question is taken over by What acceptable audit in the next line. The compound question may be read as 'How will you give an account of yourself and your behaviour to Nature when she calls (when you die) and what audited record of yourself will you provide?'

12. What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Taken together the two lines seem to mean 'How is it that, when your time of death comes, you will not be able to render a satisfactory account of yourself?' (See note to line above). Strictly speaking the term audit is applied to a check which is made on accounts after they have been presented, but also, by extension, it appears to mean the accounts themselves. It is based on the Latin Audite, (and spelt thus in 49 and 126), and is the imperative of the verb audire, to hear. Hence 'Hear! Listen! Be heard!' is the implied translation, and it indicates the hearing of accounts presented before a court, or tribunal, or in some such official setting.
13. Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Here there is also a secondary (primary?) sexual meaning. Your beauty (seed) should be used for procreation. If used in such a way, it would create progeny, a child who would be the inheritor of that beauty. But if unused, by being spilt and wasted then etc.
must be tombed = cannot avoid being entombed. (Your seed would be buried uselessly in your lap). Your children would be unborn, forever entombed.
14. Which, used, lives th' executor to be.

Which refers to 'thy beauty'. If it is used, it creates children, who would interpret and present you as you were to the world.
lives th'executor to be = lives in the future as your children, as the inheritor and administrator of your beauty.