"Making a famine where abundance lies..."


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,
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, mak'st waste in niggarding:
   Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
   To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

                    -Sonnet I, Shakespeare


OK, I'm going to come right out and admit it. I don't understand this Sonnet. I've read it four times now, and I don't get it. I wish I did; I'm sure it makes a great point and does so beautifully. But I've never understood much of Shakespeare's work, a fact that has frustrated me for years. So, I'd be happy for one of you who live in Bloomington to sit me down and explain it. I'm not yet content to remain in my ignorance and inability to appreciate this kind of poetry. I only write this in case anyone else is out there in the same boat, so that you know you're not alone.

We desire that all created things may grow more plentiful,
So that nature's beauty may not die out,
But as an old man dies at the hand of time,
He leaves an heir to carry on his memory:
But you, interested only in your own beauty,
Feed the radiant light of life with self-regarding fuel,
Making a void of beauty by so obsessing over your own looks,
With this behavior you are being cruel to yourself.
You are now the newest ornament in the world, young and beautiful
And the chief messenger of spring,
But you are burying the gifts you have been given within yourself
And, dear one, because you deny others your beauty, you are actually wasting it.
Take pity on the world, or else be regarded as a selfish glutton,
By the laws of God and nature you must create a child, so that the grave does not devour the memory of your loveliness.


Thank you, both for the help.

The Shakespeare-online.com paraphrase which Pastor Bayly posted is reasonable, but I think whoever wrote it missed (or possibly down-played) Shakespeare's profusion of procreation references. May I offer an alternative?

We desire that beautiful things may grow more plentiful,
So that the embodiment of beauty (i.e. you) may not die out,
But because one who becomes more perfect (riper) will be killed by time
He leaves an heir to carry on his memory:
But you, consumed by your own beauty, [Contracted: married, but also pulled inward]
Feed your life with the substance of yourself,
Creating barrenness where there is fertility,
Which is against your interest, and cruel to yourself.
You, who are at present the pinnacle of creation
And the chief messenger of showy spring, [i.e. He embodies new life, freshness, fertility]
Are burying the gifts you have been given within yourself [content: what he contains; also his pleasure, joy]
And, dear man, waste yourself through stinginess.
Take pity on the world, or else be the kind of glutton I describe,
Who consumes what the world deserves (i.e. your descendants), through death and yourself (by your refusal to procreate).

I'd also like to note that "increase" (line 1) also has the connotation of pregnancy and evokes the command to be fruitful and multiply. From Paradise Lost: "Our Maker bids increase, who bids abstain/But our Destroyer, foe to God and Man?"

In line 11, burial in a (flower) bud is another image of death where there should be life.

In line 12, "churl" is a very rich word and paraphrasing it as "one" is like exchanging "mankind" for "humankind." It can mean man, husband, poor man (i.e. he has no riches if he does not pass them on), boor/rube (an affectionate insult, I think), a stingy man. "Make waste" is not only "are wasteful" but also, as in the idiom "made waste of x," "lay waste" or "make desolate."

Dear Elsa,

Thanks; very helpful.



Thank you all.

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