“Sonnet 1: From fairest creatures we desire increase” by William Shakespeare

Titian_WomanWithMirror

Titian

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.

As I read this poem, I couldn’t help but think how little has changed in 500 years. We are still obsessed with physical beauty.

The opening line states the obvious—we desire sexual relations with those who possess physical beauty. But the word “increase” ties in with the next several lines. Humans not only desire physical beauty in their partners to satisfy their own pleasure, they also seek attractive partners so that they can pass the traits of physical beauty on to their children, thereby creating a fair bloodline. This was probably more important in Shakespeare’s time when upward mobility along the social ladder was usually gained through advantageous marriages. Having a beautiful daughter could certainly score you a nice dowry.

The middle section of the poem has an interesting shift. Here we see the obsession with beauty from a woman’s perspective. The woman is “contracted to thine own bright eyes,” or obsessed with her reflection in a mirror. She knows that if she is to secure a husband, she must do so while she still has the beauty of youth. She examines every aspect of herself and ornaments herself in order to highlight her appearance.

The ending of this sonnet has a dark, ironic twist. While we may focus on beauty, procreation, and securing our lineage, ultimately, we all face the same end: death. Our flesh will rot and we will become food for the worms. Which begs the question—Is it worth it? I’d like to say it’s not, but I have to be honest with myself. There are advantages to being good-looking. It would be naive to think that unattractive people have the same workplace opportunities as attractive people. While I think we have made progress in this area, your appearance will still have an impact on the opportunities that are presented to you.

I wish I could say we have evolved past this, but alas, tis not so. We may have come a long way as a society, but the fact is, human nature is very slow to change.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to ““Sonnet 1: From fairest creatures we desire increase” by William Shakespeare

  1. This exploration of the value placed on beauty, and how it was seen in Shakespeare’s time by a man, and by a woman, made me think of a variation on that theme by my favorite poet, Yeats. In this poem beauty is equated with art and effort, and of course, still inspires desire and love. Love itself is seen as art, as like poetry, by the man. Beauty is seen as a labor by the woman.

    Adam’s Curse

    By William Butler Yeats

    We sat together at one summer’s end,
    That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
    And you and I, and talked of poetry.
    I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
    Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
    Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
    Better go down upon your marrow-bones
    And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
    Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
    For to articulate sweet sounds together
    Is to work harder than all these, and yet
    Be thought an idler by the noisy set
    Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
    The martyrs call the world.’

    And thereupon
    That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
    There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
    On finding that her voice is sweet and low
    Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
    Although they do not talk of it at school—
    That we must labour to be beautiful.’
    I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
    Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
    There have been lovers who thought love should be
    So much compounded of high courtesy
    That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
    Precedents out of beautiful old books;
    Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’

    We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
    We saw the last embers of daylight die,
    And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
    A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
    Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
    About the stars and broke in days and years.

    I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
    That you were beautiful, and that I strove
    To love you in the old high way of love;
    That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
    As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

    • Hi Amber! Thanks for your comment, and for posting Yeats’ poem. I too love Yeats’ work. I suspect the “labour” that Yeats is referring to here is childbirth. Since men cannot bear children, the only method of creation left to us is through art. It kind of turns the concept of Eve’s Curse on it’s head. I suppose I will have to blog about this poem soon, huh? 😉 Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

  2. “No fine thing since Adam’s fall that needs much laboring” would certainly include childbirth. (My trip to Asheville in December was for the birth of a friend’s child. Much laboring, indeed.) I’d love to read your take on the poem. As a woman who has labored over art but not birth, perhaps I am in the man’s shoes in this.

  3. Pingback: “Sonnet 2: When forty winters shall beseige thy brow” by William Shakespeare | Stuff Jeff Reads

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