From time to time I will post a few lines of commentary on the Shakespearean sonnets. Though, of late, I have been proceeding in numerical order, I reserve the right to deviate from that pattern.
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself 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 thyself alone,
Thou of thyself 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 usèd lives th' executor to be.
With this sonnet, Shakespeare continues his somewhat unusual and roundabout praise of the Fair Youth. Here, the subject of the poem continues to be lectured, presumably for his reluctance to engage in a romantic partnership.
For me, one interesting point here, as is true of many of these Fair Youth sonnets, is just how odd this praise is. I cannot think of any other literary source that chastises an individual for failing to share his or her beauty with the world. Once again, the great poet almost seems to be taking on the role of an interfering relative. That is, of course, assuming that the voice of the poem is not extorting the subject of the poem to establish a relationship with the writer himself.
What really stands out in these lines is the financial metaphor. The unwillingness of the Fair Youth to form a romantic attachment is compared to a profligate spender and bad investor. Words like “Unthrifty,” “legacy,” “executor,” etc. emphasize the point. This theme just adds to the quirkiness of it all. Once again, it is not often that romantic solitude is compared to such pecuniary matters. With lines like “What acceptable audit canst thou leave?” I get the impression that Shakespeare may be attempting to be playful with us.
On a side note, I also think that it is a bit extraordinary that Shakespeare’s references to the world of money should be so applicable and understandable some four hundred years later. The terminology and concepts used here have remained remarkably consistent over time. Some things have hardly changed!
I have used the word “sublime” to describe other Shakespeare sonnets. I do not feel that these lines reach that same level of aesthetic beauty. In fact, they likely were not meant to. The sonnets are diverse little works, and sometimes the poet was not reaching for such sweeping grandeur. Instead, I would use the words “very clever” to describe this verse.