From time to time, I will continue my ruminations on a somewhat random Shakespeare sonnet. While I have no intention to move in numerical order or to cover every single sonnet, I found that, having intended on exploring Sonnet Number 11, I really wanted to take a look at the preceding Sonnets before doing so. The first 126 sonnets are a part of the “Fair Youth” sequence, in which the Bard is heaping copious praise as well as advice upon a young man. Critics have long debated whether these affections are platonic or not. The first eleven sonnets can be looked at as a subgroup, known as the Procreation Sonnets, and all closely relate to one another. Thus for now, I will jump back and ponder Sonnet Number 1.
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, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.
Obviously this is an exhortation to the worthy object to go forth and be fruitful and multiply. Furthermore, Shakespeare is ascribing the young man’s reluctance to do so as character weakness. The hesitation is compared to gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. The religious connections, as well as the aesthetic beauty of the poem, raise this argument above the proverbial obnoxious friends and relatives who attempt to bully childless people into having families.
Still, this is a somewhat unfamiliar Shakespeare to me. To be sure, the art form of sonnets is very different from that of plays. However, I am accustomed to a Shakespeare who shows human nature and not one who tells us what he is thinking. I also find that the worldview that Shakespeare presents, at least in the plays, is more often than not cynical and at times even nihilistic. I include the comedies in this assessment. Yet, here is a voice advising someone what is right, as well as how to live and even what is beneficial to the world at large. “Pity the world” if you pass on without having children.
There are several possibilities. It could be that there is irony or parody here. A search through commentary on this group of sonnets does reveal a school of thought that this set of works is indeed a caricature of other poets and their works. I personally am having trouble detecting satire here, however. Or perhaps the “voice” of the poem may not really be Shakespeare but a character or point of view that he is simply projecting.
Of course, we sometimes forget that great artists produce their works over a number of years and may shift into different moods and outlooks from time to time. Perhaps in this eloquent but unusual expression of love, the great poet is exhibiting an antidote to the darkness of the world by a prescription for the beautiful to procreate.
Either way, there is one thing for certain. As Shakespeare urged his subject into creating something immortal in order to perpetuate beauty, he in turn created something immortal, thus perpetuating beauty, in this poetry.