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Sonnets1609titlepage

[1] From fairest creatures we desire increase,

[2] That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

[3] But, as the riper should by time decease,

[4] His tender heir might bear his memory.

[5] But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

[6] Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,

[7] Making a famine where abundance lies,

[8] Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

[9] Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament

[10] And only herald to the gaudy spring

[11] Within thine own bud buriest thy content

[12] And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.

[13] Pity the world, or else this glutton be—

[14] To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

The sonnet fits perfectly into three quatrains and a couplet. The argument fits into the form with the first line of each quatrain a topic sentence and the couplet a conclusion.

The poem is a request that the recipient of the poem (a person of endless speculation) would have children. By having children you achieve a kind of immorality and bless the world. But selfishness is a gluttony where you spend yourself upon yourself in death.

The first stanza sets out the primary argument of the poem: have children! Shakespeare gives two reasons: It is a good to the world for the best to have children; and, it is a good to you to have one who carries on your memory:

[1] From fairest creatures we desire increase,

[2] That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

[3] But, as the riper should by time decease,

[4] His tender heir might bear his memory.

The argument skillfully weaves the two argument into one.

The Perpetuation of Beauty

The first argument appears in lines 1-2.

[1] From fairest creatures we desire increase,

[2] That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

There are two elements to this argument: (a) origin, and (b) desire.

Origin of Beauty

This argument would be easily missed, because it is a concept so foreign to our “modern is best” understanding. We are anxious over the newest; we think the present is best and the future is better. We have a Hegelian progress of history (I don’t mean in some technical Hegelian manner, but as a general understanding) in which the present is better than the past.

This understandings of the progress of history is precisely the opposite of pre-Hegelian forebears. The earth at the first was pristine: It was best at first. This concept appears worldview which would have been available to Shakespeare. First, the Bible begins with the Garden of Eden. The original world was pristine. But world was altered, through the Fall of Adam into sin; and then, through the devastation of the Flood.

Second, classical mythology understands the history of the world to have progressed through a series of ages beginning with the Golden Age:

First of all [110] the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods [115] without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, [120] rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods. 

 Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Works and Days. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1914). “Then” a second, silver age of men were found upon the earth:

then they who dwell on Olympus made a second generation which was of silver and less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. 

 Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Works and Days. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1914).

Thus, when we think of a great good like beauty, we think of it as an artifact of the pristine world. Beauty was something in the world from an earlier age and now descended to us. The ancient was not a place of foolish superstition and bad science, it was an age of greater truth and beauty. We are not the accumulation of wisdom but the running down of the world.

With that idea in mind, consider the second line of the sonnet

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

The rose of beauty can be lost — indeed, it will be lost if we are not careful to preserve it.

This idea, when it exists in our present age, exists in our understanding of non-human nature. This curious, but not necessarily without foundation. Remember that the Greek concept of a Golden Age comes from a Pagan conception of the universe without a Creator-Creature divide. Moreover, the relationship of human beings to the created order is fundamentally different. The concept of the “image of God” does not appear in the same way in pagan anthropology.

On that issue, the best starting place would be Peter Jone’s, The Other Worldview.

The concept of a pristine earlier age does exist in environmentalism. There is an ecological understanding of the human beings as the agent of defection, the means of devastation. The absence of human activity is good; the presence of human activity is what makes the world worse.

The Desire for Beauty

Beauty — with truth — is also an object of desire and the charm and foundation of life. Keats in his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn famously wrote:

When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Christianity would posit this triad, the true, the beautiful and the good.

We desire the best creatures to reproduce (increase) so that beauty will continue in the world.  We – the rest of the world – desire all of the best creatures to fill the world. There is a faint echo of a biblical theme. Prosperity is always marked as “increase”:

Psalm 115:14 (KJV): The Lord shall increase you more and more,

You and your children.

“Fairest” is the praise of Canticles 1.8, 5.9, 6.1. But this is mixed with a Roman theme of an heir to bear one’s memory.

The Beautiful Should Desire the Continuation of Beauty: Memory as Immortality

The movement of lines 2-4 take this public theme of all the world desires the perpetuating of this beauty to this continuing the beauty is a private benefit of one’s memory.

The trick in the argument is the world “But” at the beginning of line 3. The But shifts the argument to a second theme. We don’t know the rhetorical trick because the But is followed by a parenthetical which distracts us.

A second But turns the private argument on its head. But you are so concerned with yourself that you do not even consider your memory.

This stanza says you have no sense of time. A theme Shakespeare will repeatedly consider is the ever present fact of death.

Stanza Two: The effect upon you for your folly

You are consuming your beauty and youth while not even considering the effect this will have upon yourself and upon others:

5] But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

[6] Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,

[7] Making a famine where abundance lies,

[8] Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

You are making a famine of yourself.

Ironically, the poet cares for the subject than the subject does to his or her self.

The final stanza moves from argument to rebuke:

9] Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament

[10] And only herald to the gaudy spring

[11] Within thine own bud buriest thy content

[12] And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.

You are the spring of the world, but you do not care. You the Spring of the world. Your stinginess, your “niggarding” is a waste.

The beauty of your life and body can only be preserved by having a child.

One theory of Shakespeare is that Shakespeare was the front for Edward DeVere. If so, this poem makes sense as a complaint to Elizabeth Queen.

 

I am unaware of anyone advancing that theory and it may be just nonsense — but then most of the speculation on the “reality” behind the sonnets is nonsense. All or anyone of the sonnets could be fabrications of his imagination. Shakespeare was at the very least inventive.

The couplet draws these themes together into a rebuke

13] Pity the world, or else this glutton be—

[14] To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

It also multiples implications by the sheer compression of the languag.

You are a glutton who eats what is due another by dying- because you will die. You could do us good, but you will not.

The grave is a glutton and eats people. You are a glutton to yourself by giving yourself to the grave.

Selfishness is death in life and a severer death of being forgotten after death.