From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decrease,
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,
Thy self 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.
This sonnet contains a treat: “Pity the world, or else this glutton be”.
The first rhyming pair of words appears lazy. Shakespeare rhymes “increase” with “decrease”. “Crease” being the root word which he has rhymed with itself. When reading a poem ones eyes are drawn in circle to remind you of the rhyming pattern. The first rhyme was “increase”. What followed was “decrease”. There the rhyme reinforces the message of the first four lines: increase is followed by decrease. The message of Shakespeare is that universal hope for immortality, or that the decrepitude of age will not affect us. The “desire . . . that . . . beauty’s rose will never die,” is encoded in the first two lines and is tempered by the possibility that a child, in your likeness, an heir, might live on after you and remember you, in the next two lines.
The next four lines lay out Shakespeare’s conflict with the addressee of the poem. He turns from the universal wish for immortality, and fear of aging, to the more personal. If he had a camera, he would have zoomed in: wide screen of the globe, close up on her face. She is turned inward, onto herself, and that is dangerous. It smacks of vanity. Her flame burns with “self-substantial fuel” she feeds on herself, like some anorexic demon. In this case I think that the word “contracted” is not the legal definition, but the archaic one: marriage. This poor self-centered, self-feeding woman has also married herself. Even our liberal modern minds are shaken by that probability.
The eighth line is a compact pattern of repetition: “Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.” The only word in this line over one syllable is the last, and we mostly elide it, and pronounce it with just one syllable. Shakespeare says that her self-marriage, and self-centeredness has made her her own worst enemy, that she is too cruel to herself. He has a solution though.
We see more centering inward turning imagery in the next four lines. “Within thine own bud buriest thy content.” We know what kind of bud to picture from the second line: a rose. A rosebud is tightly formed, and seems on inspection to turn in on itself revealing no secrets. A careful dissection of it reveals a spiral petal formation around the sexy center. Just at this time, in her youth, the woman is a “fresh ornament,” but the warning comes again like the rosebud, in concentric tightening circles. First the four line that laid it out, now again in a two line repetition.
The next line can be read in two ways, both tragic. Either the woman is the sole herald of spring, or she will only live long enough to see one spring. Shakespeare’s answer: turn outward, share yourself (especially with him). Using the seasons as a time line of a person’s life is a common trope in literature, of course. Spring is callow youth, summer the era of parenthood, fall the beginning of old age, and winter, the long decline into death. You would want your spring and summer to be of equal length.
Penny wise and pound foolish is the meaning of the next line: “And tender churl makest waste in niggarding.” A churl is an impolite and mean-spirited person, or a miser. Niggarding of course is not from a root meaning black , but is instead meaning stingy. A young miser wastes the point of stinginess.
The last two lines remind us of the eating theme in lines 5-8. Don’t cloister yourself. Turn outward, give the world its due. The last line makes a full circle of the famine in line 7. Graves, when open look like the mouth of the world and eat the dead when they’re closed up. “To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.” If you keep cloistered and turned in on yourself, then the grave and you will become the same. The overfull graveyards of Yorik’s day give this heavy weight. She will die. The maw of the earth, the grave, will eat her, and later she and the grave will eat another. Happily, all this is avoidable: marry and have children, preferably with the author!