Summary/Understanding of Sonnet 1 by William Shakespeare

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Sonnet 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'st 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.


The first sonnet takes it as a given that "From fairest creatures we desire increase"--that is, that we desire beautiful creatures to multiply, in order to preserve their "beauty's rose" for the world. That way, when the parent dies ("as the riper should by time decease"), the child might continue its beauty ("His tender heir might bear his memory").

In the second quatrain, the speaker chides the young man he loves for being too self-absorbed to think of procreation: he is "contracted" to his own "bright eyes," and feeds his light with the fuel of his own loveliness. The speaker says that this makes the young man his own unwitting enemy, for it makes "a famine where abundance lies," and hoards all the young man's beauty for himself. In the third quatrain, he argues that the young man may now be beautiful--he is "the world's fresh ornament / And only herald to the gaudy spring"--but that, in time, his beauty will fade, and he will bury his "content" within his flower's own bud (that is, he will not pass his beauty on; it will wither with him). In the...