Sonnet 1, the first verse of one of the most astonishing collections of poems ever published in Western Literature by one Poet, opens with the form and function of the rigidly controlled format of the ‘Elizabethan Sonnet’: fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, a dovetailing rhyme scheme, with the content’s central argument controlled by three quatrains and couplet. And yet, the content: it was revolutionary:
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’s 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.
Was this sonnet a romantic verse penned by a male Elizabethan Poet to a beautiful and chaste mistress? Hardly. It’s penned by an older Poet to a younger man (though the identity of the recipient’s gender isn’t revealed till later sonnets, this business goes on for 126 sonnets!). Does it regale in the recipient’s beauty? Yes. However… Does the Poet beg for his recipient’s love? No! Rather, he begs the Young Man to breed, so this his beauty might be carried on. Very odd. Later, as more sonnets go on, a kind of narrative begins to reveal itself. For about the first 17 sonnets the Poet entreats the Young Man to preserve his beauty through marriage and procreation. But that begins to evolve into something else–into something that was illegal and very dangerous in Elizabethan England.
Despite the unusual and risqué subtext of this verse, its imagery and language are as sumptuous and profound as anything written in Elizabethan England (or, of course, even today):
‘Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel.’ My favorite line.
Does anyone write as beautifully in today’s world?
The image comes from a scan of the first publication of the Sonnets in 1609, taken, published and released without Shakespeare’s permission.