Sonnet 1 by Shakespeare: Paraphrased and Explained Easily

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The total of 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare has been some of the most powerful, impactful, and influential works not only by Shakespeare but in the literary world. Sonnet 1, also called From Fairest Creatures We Desire Increase marks the beginning of the first seventeen sonnets out of the 154 (sonnet 1 to sonnet 17). These seventeen sonnets are also called the Procreation Sonnets because the theme of these sonnets is creating life. 

This sonnet establishes the base for the upcoming  seventeen sonnets which compel a mysterious, beautiful young man (supposedly a friend of Shakespeare) to start a family, conceiving an heir to his beauty. The entire seventeen sonnets talk about the continuation of one’s life after one death and how they live through their children. 

This article will look into the analysis, meaning, and paraphrasing of Sonnet 1, explaining in simple terms what the sonnet intends to deliver. Before we get into the analysis, take a look at the sonnet. 

Sonnet 1: From Fairest Creatures We Desire Increase by William Shakespeare 

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’st 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.

Paraphrase of Sonnet 1: Short, simple summary

Here’s a paraphrased version of Sonnet 1 which aims to deliver the contents of the sonnet in simple, modern language with the essential meaning of the original one. 

Beauty is something that everyone desires to multiple 

So that the evidence of their beauty shall live forever.

But as the beauty of the creature matures and reaches its prime, it starts declining, finally ending.

The young version of the creature (their children) will be their image, keeping them alive in memory.

But you are lost in the blinding lights of your own bright eyes, clung to self-obsession.

You are burning your beauty and self to give fuel to your beautiful light (The beauty shines the brightest by consuming the fuel of youth, and youth runs out)

With these acts, you are creating a scarcity of beauty when you already have an abundance of it.

You are your enemy, a cruel being to your sweet self.

You are the testament for the beauty in the world, a beautiful flower.

You are the sign of a beautiful spring to come

But it won’t last forever, the flower withers and falls and gets buried under its bud.

In your youth, you are wasting your beauty in trying to store it

For the benefit of the world, procreate and multiply your beauty

Or else the grave and you will eat away all the beauty that is due for the world. 

Analysis of Sonnet 1 with Commentary

As you can derive from the paraphrased version of Sonnet 1, Shakespeare here is compelling his friend, who is young, beautiful but also self-obsessed to get married and have children so that his beauty can live on through his children. The sonnet is more about the perseverance of beauty through time than convincing his friend to marry. 

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:

No matter how sweet the beauty of youth is, it is bound to decline and decay with time. And the human soul wants to see more beauty in this world. This is why Shakespeare says to procreate and make the young man’s beauty, or more the image of his beauty live on through the next generation. And the next generation is the children of such beautiful creatures, carrying their reflection.

The sonnet then turns towards the destructive nature of self-obsession, the damage it does to the people who are stuck in the marvel of their beauty. Feeding the flame with their youth is a powerful line here that needs to be explained and expanded.

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Beauty is like a flame, a bright flame that attracts everyone. But it needs fuel to burn, and the fuel is youth. Youth lasts only for a small period, declining very quickly after it matures. The young man here is burning the youth for the flame to run and creating a famine of beauty where it is present in abundance.

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.

No doubt the youth is like a beautiful flower that brings the sign of the arriving spring. But it cannot sustain spring alone and soon the flower withers and gets buried under its bud, a nod to the death and decay of the creature. Hence, trying to store beauty is the same as wasting it. 

Youth is the herald of spring, meaning that it must bring new buds of flowers (children) into this world and not gloat in its beauty.

   Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

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

The resolving couplet of the sonnet asks the young man to have mercy on this world and create more like him to carry his beauty. Or else the man himself, along with the gluttonous grave, will eat away all the beauty that is for the world. 

Sonnet 1 by Shakespeare

Literary devices 

The sonnet is a Shakespearean sonnet or English sonnet with three quatrains (four-line stanza) and a couplet in the end. The rhyming scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Each line in the stanzas has ten syllables. 

The theme of the sonnet is beauty, the perseverance of beauty, and the dangers of it. It is the romanticization of youth, perseverance, and the power of time to bring it all down. 

There are a lot of metaphors used in this sonnet. Here are some examples; 

“That thereby beauty’s rose might never die”, where youth is presented as a beautiful rose. 

“But as the riper should by time decease”, as a fruit, beauty ripens and then starts degrading. 

“But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel”, represents how beauty is a consequence of youth, running as long as youth remains. 

“Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament

And only herald to the gaudy spring” represents that youth is an ornament that gives beauty to this world momentarily. It is a herald of spring, meaning that it is to give rise to new flowers, not gloat in its beauty. 

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