Sonnet 11

Shakespeare Sonnet 11

AS faſt as thou ſhalt wane ſo faſt thou grow’ſt,
In one of thine, from that which thou departeſt,
And that freſh bloud which yongly thou beſtow’ſt,
Thou maiſt call thine, when thou from youth conuerteſt,
Herein liues wiſdome, beauty, and increaſe,
Without this follie, age, and could decay,
If all were minded ſo, the times ſhould ceaſe,
And threeſcoore yeare would make the world away:
Let thoſe whom nature hath not made for ſtore,
Harſh, featureleſſe, and rude, barrenly perriſh,
Looke whom ſhe beſt indow’d, ſhe gaue the more;                thee?
Which bountious guift thou ſhouldſt in bounty cherriſh,
She caru’d thee for her ſeale, and ment therby,
Thou ſhouldſt print more, not let that coppy die.

Sonnet 11’s opening line, “As fast as thou shalt wane so fast thou grow’st,” echoes the maxim, “Youth waineth by increasing,” an aside of the elderly, with which Shakespeare will conclude the series of sonnets to the young man at Sonnet 126. 1 It was associated with Narcissus who wasted away as he grew as a youth. Here the aphorism is used allusively to argue for procreation: as quickly as the youth ages (“wane”), at the same rate he will increase (and multiply), either as issue in the womb of his wife or in his child as it grows (“In one of thine”); he will grow “from that which thou departest,” that which is the result of his endowing (“departest” = distribute or yield) or from the youthhood from which he is being distanced (“departest” = leave). The “fresh bloud,” either the ‘new life’ or the ‘life-blood’ (or even the ‘semen,’ which was thought a distillation of blood), which he will pour out (“bestow”) while young or in a young way (“yongly”), he may claim as his or bestow his name upon (“call thine”), when he changes from his early years (“conuertest”). In that “fresh bloud” (“Herein,” with a hint of ‘heir in’) will be found “wisdome, beauty, and increase.” If no generation ensues (“Without this”), the youth’s bequest will be folly, age, and deathly dissolution (“could decay”). If the whole world were to choose not to sire heirs (“if all were minded so”), then “times,” ages, would come to an end within a generation; “three scoore yeare” is a poetic contraction of the life-span of Ps. 90.10, “The time of our life is threescore yeeres and ten” (GV).

For the sonnet’s sestet Shakespeare has had recourse to Ovid’s account of the recreating of man, the dominant metaphor for which is a stone being carved. After describing primaeval chaos as a “rudis indigestaque moles,” which elsewhere Shakespeare renders as “that indigest . . so shapeless and so rude,” 2 Ovid describes how Deucalion and  Pyrrha, following the oracle’s instructions, took stones of mother earth and threw them behind themselves: then ‘the stones began to lay aside their harshness (“duritiem”) and rigidity (“rigorem”) and presently began to grow soft, and once softened to take on a shape (“formam”). Then, as these increased and a gentler nature touched them (“contigit”), an indistinct outline of a man could be detected, like a marble statue, whose features, while initially being carved, are inexact and resemble rudely shaped impressions (“rudibus signis”)’. Golding is more expansive:

The stones (who would beleve the thing, but that the time of olde
Reportes it for a stedfast truth?) of nature tough and harde,
Began to warre both soft and smothe: and shortly afterwarde
To winne therwith a better shape: and as they did encrease,
A mylder nature in them grew, and rudenesse gan to cease.
For at the first their shape was such, as in a certaine sort
Resembled man, but of the right and perfect shape came short.
Even like to Marble ymages new drawne and roughly wrought,
Before the Carver by his Arte to purpose hath them brought. 3

The poet allows that those whom nature has not destined to be perfected, whose “store” like Narcissus’ “copia” or “aboundance” is purposed to go unused, and who are “harsh” or insensible (Ovid’s “duritiem” and “rigorem”) and “featureless, and rude” (Ovid’s “indigesta” and “rudis”) should die like a barren stone without issue. (The Latin “rudis,” meaning ‘untried,’ was also used of the sexually untried.) 4 On the other hand Nature has given a greater gift to whomever (“Looke whom”) she has already generously enriched (“best indow’d”): the power to procreate children. (If the quarto’s “the” is emended to “thee,” then ‘whomever Nature has enriched the most, she has given you even more.’) The gift of that abundance (“bountious gift”) should be treasured bountifully (“cherrish”) by using it to generate plentiful return or issue (“cherish” and “endow” were requirements of the Book of Common Prayer’s “Rite of Marriage” in conjunction with “depart”).

Nature has “caru’d” out the youth so that he is no longer like an inchoate form or rudely shaped impression in stone. Her intention is that the youth be her seal (a signum [see Ovid above, “signis”] is also the impression a seal makes). He is a perfectly shaped, featured figure, which nature has carved and stamped as an authentic, validated and perfect copy, intending that the youth should stamp further copies (“should’st print more”), not stand alone like an unused die or pattern that can only die (“not let that coppy die,” where “coppy” evokes the “copia” which Narcissus will not spend).


11.1. See Sonnet 126 and George Peele, Polyhymnia Describing, The honourable Triumph at Tylt, before her Maiestie, on the 17. of Nouember, last past (London: Richard Jones, 1590) B4v. The phrase was well-known; see William Segar, Honor, Military and Ciuill (London, Robert Barker, 1604) 198: “youth waineth by encreasing.”

11.2. Jn. 5.7.26, “To set a forme on that indigest / Which he hath left so shapeless and so rude;” see Ovid, Met. 1.7: “Quem dixere chaos, rudis indigestaque moles.”

11.3. Golding 1.476-84; Ovid, Met. 1.400-06:

saxa (quis hoc credat, nisi sit pro teste vetustas?)
ponere duritiem coepere suumque rigorem
mollirique mora mollitaque ducere formam.
mox ubi creverunt naturaque mitior illis
contigit, ut quaedam, sic non manifesta videri
forma potest hominis, sed uti de marmore coepta
non exacta satis rudibusque simillima signis.

11.4. Compare Ovid, Amores 2.6, “rudis ignoto tactus amore puer” (‘an untried youth touched by unknown love,’) cited by Cooper, Thesaurus rudis; Ovid, Fasti 335-6, “coniugii rudis iuuenca,” a young woman (or heifer) unknowing of a male, rendered by Cooper as, “An heighfer that hathe not been at bull;” Ovid, Tristia 3.3.58, “ad quae iampridem non rude pectus habes,” which Cooper renders as “An heart not touched with the pangues of loue.”