Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1 is the first of 17 poems concerned with the fair youth breeding and sharing his beautiful genes with the world. It is probably one of the better poems of the 17 and therefore, there is speculation that it was not in fact the first to be written. Rather, it was chosen as the first sonnet in the folio on its merits.
Shakespeare is suggesting in this poem that if the fair youth does not procreate then it would be very selfish; he would be greedily and pointlessly hoarding his beauty and not passing it on to future generations for the world to enjoy.
Shakespeare’s accusation of narcissism levelled at the fair youth threatens that he will be remembered as someone possessed with self-love rather than as someone who passed on his beauty for the world to enjoy.
One must be reminded that the poet becomes obsessed with the fair youth and his life choices. Perhaps the poet in this poem is exposing the fair youth’s reluctance to collude sexually with a woman. Perhaps women and making babies are not his thing?
You can read the full text to Sonnet 1 in our collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Sonnet 1: The Facts
- Sequence: Sonnet 1 is part of the Fair Youth Sonnets
- Key Themes: Procreation and a lack of desire to breed. Accusations of narcissism levelled at fair youth. Obsession with the beauty of the fair youth.
- Style: Sonnet 1 is written in iambic pentameter and follows the traditional sonnet form
Sonnet 1: A Translation
We want beautiful creatures to procreate and that beauty is then passed on for other generations to enjoy.
“That thereby beauty’s rose might never die”: time will take its toll on your looks but your heir will remind the world of how beautiful you were.
“But as the riper should by time decrease / His tender heir might bear his memory”: but you are so obsessed with your own beauty that you are currently fuelling your own desirability, creating a famine or shortage of beauty – where you could be populating the world with it.
You are your own enemy! At the moment you are the world’s beautiful ornament and you are enjoying the here-and-now rather than thinking of the future.
You shouldn’t be content as you are cheating the world – being greedy and selfish.
You owe it to the world to breed and you will be remembered for denying it: “Pity the world, or else this glutton be / To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.”
Sonnet 1: Analysis
The sonnet is addressed to the poet’s very handsome friend. We are unaware of his identity or whether he existed at all. The poet’s preoccupation with the fair youth starts here and continues through 126 poems. It is therefore pertinent to assume that he did exist as he must have made such an impact to inspire all this work?
As discussed, this is the first of 17 poems encouraging the fair youth to breed. Perhaps in encouraging this, Shakespeare is encouraging him to partake in a male/female relationship. One could speculate that in doing so, he is attempting to deny his own romantic feelings toward the fair youth.
Shakespeare uses an analogy to the rose which is seen in later poems and also employs the seasons to make his point as he does in the famous Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day and sonnet 73: That Time Of Year Thou Mayst In Me Behold where he uses Autumn and Winter to describe death.
In this poem he uses an early season in the year: Spring. This makes sense as the first poem in the collection and when talking about the fair youth living for the moment and enjoying his youth without thinking about the future.
Want to read the entire poem? Our collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets contains the original text to Sonnet 1.