Sonnet 1

Shakespeare Sonnet 1

FRom faireſt creatures we deſire increaſe,
That thereby beauties Roſe might neuer die,
But as the riper ſhould by time deceaſe,
His tender heire might beare his memory:
But thou contracted to thine owne bright eyes,
Feed’ſt thy lights flame with ſelfe ſubſtantiall fewell,
Making a famine where aboundance lies,
Thy ſelfe thy foe, to thy ſweet ſelfe too cruell:
Thou that art now the worlds freſh ornament,
And only herauld to the gaudy ſpring,
Within thine owne bud burieſt thy content,
And tender chorle makſt waſt in niggarding:
Pitty the world, or elſe this glutton be,
To eate the worlds due, by the graue and thee.

Sonnet 1 is the first of a series of nineteen sonnets urging the young man to generate children and indicting his narcissism. It is not a customary dedicatory sonnet, although its first line, “From fairest creatures we desire increase,’ echoes Genesis, the locus biblicus of openings. The expectation recalls God’s command, “bring ye forth fruite & multiplie: grow plentifully in the earth, and increase therein” (9.10; GV). The injunction is to “euery liuing creature” and “vnto perpetuall generations” (9.12; GV). The line is made axiomatic through the generalizing “we:” “increase” is desired but particularly of the “fairest creatures,” so that, accordingly (“thereby”), “beauties Rose might neuer die,” an echo of a more focussed biblical instruction, “Hearken vnto me ye holy vertuous children, bring foorth fruite as the rose that is planted by the brookes of the fielde” (Ecclus. 39.13; BB). (The occurrence of italics in the sequence is inconsistent and without guiding principle.) The epithet, “beauties Rose,” is the ‘perfection of beauty’ as well as ‘the rose that is beauty’s’ and was standard (compare Barnes, Parthenophil and Parthenophe 45.1, “Sweet bewties rose in whose fayre purple leaues”). In addition, because ‘my rose’ (“mea rosa”) was a term of endearment from classical times (see Sonnet 109.14, “thou my Rose”), the rose of beauty is also ‘the darling of which beauty is enamoured.’ 1 Since, the poet claims, anything that reaches maturity (“riper”) will be reduced by time to nothing (“decease”), any issue will enable the “tender heire” of “beauties Rose” (“his” meaning ‘its’) to carry forward (“beare” with suggestions of child-bearing) the memory of what perfect beauty once was. (Shakespeare’s choice of “riper,” a word he uses only once elsewhere, was probably made with an eye to the Latin, mollior, from mollis, = riper.) 2 A “tender heire” is one of early years. But Shakespeare may be playing also with the false etymology of ‘mulier’ or ‘wife’ from mollis = tender + aer = air. (Henri Estienne describes this “notation of Mulier, quasi mollis aër,” as a “subtil and curious Etymologizing.”) 3 The wordgame was available as early as Caxton 4 and Shakespeare uses it as a crux at the end of Cymbeline:

The peece of tender Ayre, thy vertuous Daughter,
Which we call Mollis Aer, and Mollis Aer
We terme it Mulier; which Mulier I diuine
Is this most constant Wife. (5.5.444-47)

If the widely known pun was heard, and if “his” is read as ‘his,’ two further meanings occur: ‘the youth’s new offspring will perpetuate his memory’ and ‘the youth’s mulier will bear a child to continue his memory.’

The use of “tender” introduces the sonnet’s narcissistic motif and demonstrates what is everywhere apparent in the sequence, that Shakespeare’s use of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which contains the myth, is often closer to its original source than to any 16th century translation such as that of Arthur Golding. His indebtedness to Ovid is generally meticulously crafted. “Tender” was a trait of the 16 year old Narcissus and Ovid introduces him as ‘one in whose tender form (“in tenera forma”) was such durable pride that none of the many youths and maidens, who desired him, affected or touched him.’ 5 Golding doesn’t translate “in tenera forma,” but glosses it as “in that grace of Natures gift.” 6 Both “tener” and “mollis” (and both when rendered as “tender”) were used interchangeably of effeminate men. Cooper’s Thesaurus under “mollis” gives, “Homo mollis. A delicate, nice, or effeminate person,” and cites, “Plini. Vetant dari senibus & pueris, item mollibus ac foeminei corporis. To them that be of tender complexion and softe like women,” as well as Cicero, “Effoeminatum aut molle.” 7 Juvenal identifies those who are effeminate (‘teneris”) with those who are like Maecenas, an identification developed in Sonnet 55. 8

The youth is “contracted to thine own bright eyes,” ‘betrothed or drawn to his own eyes,’ or like Narcissus, ‘sees encapsulated (“contracted”) in his own eyes his reflected image:’ Ovid has ‘contracted (or seized) by the image of the form he sees’ (“visae correptus [= contracted or seized] imagine formae”), while “bright eyes” is a rendering of his “sua lumina.” 9 The youth, “Feed’st thy lights flame with selfe substantiall fewel:” ‘he nourishes his flame of life by burning up the substance of himself as fuel.’ In Ovid Narcissus ‘enflames and burns up at the same time’  and ‘burns, fueled by what he sees’ (“quod videt, uritur illo”). 10

The motto most associated with Narcissus was his cry, “inopem me copia fecit,” rendered by Golding and Spenser as “my plentie makes me poore.” 11 Ovid’s “copia” (from co + ops = abundance, as opposed to in + ops = poor) is procreatively significant, because a few lines earlier Narcissus, having called to Echo, ‘let us come together’ (even sexually) (“coeamus” from co + eo = come together; the noun is ‘coitus’), rebuffs her physical approaches by shouting, ‘I will die before my abundance (“copia”) is yours.’ 12 Shakespeare renders the motto as, “Making (“fecit”) a famine (“inopem”) where aboundance (“copia”) lies,” and thus accuses the youth of refusing to engender fruitfulness or beauty (“increase”), an absorption of self that leads, as in the case of Narcissus, only to “decease.” The youth is at war with himself (his image) and cruel to himself (“Thy selfe thy foe, to thy sweet selfe too cruell”). He is like Narcissus who inquires, ‘has any loved more cruelly (“crudelius”) than I?’ and later exclaims, ‘Stay, cruel one (“crudele”), do not forsake me who loves you,’ yet who must bid farewell to his image, his “sweet selfe” (“dilecte puer,” in Golding’s words, “Alas sweete boy belovde in vaine, farewell.”) 13 The echo will recur in the last sonnet to the youth, Sonnet 126, where he is addressed as “louely Boy.”

The friend is for “now” the youngest or greenest piece (“fresh ornament”) decorating the world. He is the most conspicuous (“only”) herald of the “gaudy spring,” either the ‘richly-displayed’ spring or the ‘green’ spring. Yet within his burgeoning life (“bud”) he shuts up as in a grave (“buriest”) his “content,” ‘that which is contained within’ or ‘that which gives happiness.’ He is a “tender chorle,” who makes “waste in niggarding.” The epithet parallels the earlier “tender heire,” while a “chorle” is a miser or one who is niggardly. The youth, not spending himself (“niggarding”), wastes himself. The accusation recalls the words of Isaiah, speaking of a time to come, when “A nigard shall no more be called liberall, nor the churle riche” (32.5; GV). He is like Narcissus who in Ovid was made meagre (“attenuatus” = without ornament), wasted (“liquitur”) and slowly devoured (“carpitur”) by an enclosed desire.’ 14

The couplet instructs the youth to be generous and to forgive unlike a miser (“Pitty the world”), otherwise he will be the kind of glutton who devours what the world is owed (“due”) by devouring himself or by having the grave devour him without an heir, a mirrored consumption. The glutton and the grave were traditionally linked through the archetypical glutton of Luke 16, “the rich glutton . .  lockt in his graue as fast as poore Lazarus,” in the words of the popular 16th century preacher, Henry Smith. 15 He sought pity, because “I am tormented in this flame” (Luke 16.24; GV).


1.1. See Plautus, Asinaria 3.3.664, “mea rosa.”

1.2. See AYL 3.5.120.

1.3. Carew, World 292.

1.4. See Jacobus de Cessolis, the game and playe of the chesse, trans. William Caxton (Bruges: William Caxton & Colard Mansion, 1474) n.p., “For the women ben likened vnto softe waxe or softe ayer and therfor she is callid mulier whyche Is as moche to saye in Latyn as mollys aer. And in english soyfte ayer.”

1.5. Ovid, Met. 3.353-55, “multi illum iuvenes, multae cupiere puellae; / sed fuit in tenera tam dura superbia forma, / nulli illum iuvenes, nullae tetigere puellae.”

1.6. Ovid, The xv. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso: entituled, Metamorphosis. A worke verie pleasand and delectable. Translated out of Latin into English meeter, by Arthur Golding Gentleman (London: John Danter: 1593) 3.439-42, “The hearts of divers trim yong men his beautie gan to move, / And many a Ladie fresh and faire was taken in his love. / But in that grace of Natures gift such passing pride did raigne, / That to be toucht of man or Mayde he wholy did disdaine.”

1.7. See Pliny, Naturalis Historia 25.25.6, who links those of a ‘tender (“mollis”) and effeminate body and disposition and those that are meagre or tender (“teneris”): “Vetant dari senibus, pueris, item mollis ac feminei corporis animive, exilibus aut teneris, et feminis minus quam viris.” Cicero, De Officiis 1.129, “Quibus in rebus duo maxime sunt fugienda, ne quid effeminatum aut molle et ne quid durum aut rusticum sit.”

1.8. Juvenal, Satire 12.39, “vestem purpuream teneris quoque Maecenatibus aptam” (‘purple attire befitting effeminates and also Maecenases’).

1.9. Ovid, Met. 3.416 & 3.420, “spectat . . geminum, sua lumina, sidus” (‘he looks at his bright eyes, his pair of stars’); compare Golding 3.526, “his ardent eyes which like two starres full bright and shyning bee.”

1.10. Ovid, Met. 3.426, “pariterque accendit et ardet;” compare Golding, 3.536, “He is the flame that settes on fire, and thing that burneth tooe;” Ovid, Met. 3.430.

1.11. Ovid, Met. 3.466; Golding 3.587; Spenser, Amoretti 35.8, “so plenty makes me poore,” and the gloss to the September emblem in The Shepheardes Calendar:
This is the saying of Narcissus in Ouid. For when the foolishe boye by beholding hys face in the brooke, fell in loue with his owne likenesse: and not hable to content himselfe with much looking thereon, he cryed out, that plentye made him poore, meaning that much gazing had bereft him of sence.

1.12. Ovid, Met. 3.391, “‘ante’ ait ‘emoriar, quam sit tibi copia nostri;’” Golding 3.487, “I first will die ere thou shalt take of me thy pleasure.”

1.13. Ovid, Met. 3.442, “‘ecquis . . crudelius’ inquit ‘amavit;’” Golding 3.555-56, “was thee ever any That loovde so cruelly as I?;” Ovid, Met. 3.477-78, “remane nec me, crudelis, amantem desere;” Golding 3.601, “Forsake me not so cruelly that loveth thee so deere;” Ovid, Met. 3.500; Golding 3.627.

1.14. Ovid, Met. 3.89-90, “attenuatus amore / liquitur et tecto paulatim carpitur igni; Golding 3.615-16, “spent and wasted through desire, / Did he consume and melt away with Cupids secret fire.”

1.15. See Henry Smith, The Sermons of Henrie Smith gathered into one volume (London: Richard Field, 1593) 553.