Scene by Scene by Shakespeare:

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Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1 – 17

Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1 – 17

Hundred Word Summary

The poet explores every avenue of persuading his friend to marry and start a family.  He believes that having children will preserve his genes – a reference to the “fair youth’s” alleged good looks; he argues that procreation is the only way to conquer time – apart, perhaps, from appearing in these poems; he suggests that children will be a hedge against old age, and that they will maintain the family line.  There is even a suggestion that to die childless is an expression of self-hatred – in turn a chance for the poet to express his own love for the “fair youth”.


Table of Contents

The Procreation Sonnets, 1 – 17

Sonnet 1

Summary: the poet, speaking on behalf of others (“we desire increase”), encourages his friend to see procreation as a duty, as well as a way of defeating time.  But his friend is evidently too self-contained, and as such is wasting his natural genetic gifts.  The world is the loser, says the poet, and his friend the poorer for his reluctance to procreate.

Note: the opening proposition, though improbable, is nevertheless flattering.  Behind the kaleidoscope of images that follow – drawn from law (“contracted”), fire, famine / greed, conflict, the seasons, flowers, money (“niggarding”) and the grave –the poet adopts an assertive, even an urgent tone.

Question: to what extent can this sonnet be classified as a love poem?

Sonnet 2

Summary: the poet imagines the “fair youth” in middle age or beyond (“forty winters”), his appearance marked by the years, with “deep trenches” in his lined face and “deep-sunken eyes”. Only procreation can sustain his youthful beauty, passed on from father to son and born anew.

Note: many of the sonnets compare a single life-span with the seasonal round. In the first sonnet, his friend represents “gaudy spring”. Here, ominously, the poet looks ahead to his friend after forty winters (not summers), a conceit extended to the closing rhyme (“old / cold”).  Less conventional is the equation of “treasure” with genes, revisited in Sonnet 6.

Question: how far do you agree with the poet that only procreation can justify an existence?

Sonnet 3

Summary: the poet’s friend would have no shortage of suitors to provide him with children and maintain the line of his beauty – just as he in turn is the image of his own once-beautiful mother. The only alternative is to die single, and in doing so let his beauty die too.

Note: the poet presents procreation in lines 5 and 6 through a metaphor taken from agriculture, in which, contentiously, perhaps) the imagined wife is seen as soil ripe for “tillage” or ploughing. The repeated imperatives (“Look in thy glass”, “Die single” etc.) inject a faintly threatening tone.

Question: do you feel that males and females will respond differently to the image in line 6?

Sonnet 4

Summary: beauty resembles wealth, suggests the poet, a “legacy” or “bequest” that is loaned, to be spent before it is lost. When his friend’s days are over, an “audit” will be expected: if the wealth has not been spent in procreation, then it is buried with the deceased. If used, it emerges in the child who executes the will.

Note: an extended metaphor of money contrasts the miserly (the “fair youth”) with the generous. The poet expresses his exasperation through the mood of the verbs: four interrogatives (“why … why … why … What …”), underlined by an emphatic modal, effectively an imperative.

Question: how far do you feel that money and finance provide a convincing metaphorical field for poems about youth and beauty? 

Sonnet 5

Summary: the poet warns his friend that time, which first fashioned his beauty, will equally unmake (or “unfair”) it: life resembles the annual round – winter always “confounds” summer. But just as roses can be distilled as rose-water and their essence kept, so may his friend’s “substance” be preserved through procreating.

Note: rose-water, a “distillation” of summer which outlives its own season, remains as “sweet” in winter as ever.  The passing hours are “tyrants”, this sonnet suggests, but rose-water retains its “substance” in spite of the tyranny of time, and (it is implied) the poet’s friend may do the same.

Question: what have we learned about the “fair youth” from the opening five sonnets?

Sonnet 6

Summary: the poet’s friend should reproduce himself before it’s too late, by impregnating a woman with his treasured genes.  Doing so, he will be able to produce many new versions of himself, in this way outwitting death.  His genes are far too valuable for him to die childless, fit only for worms.

Note: the rich figurative language apart, the poem is notable for the coinages (“treasure” as a verb; “happies” meaning to make happy); and for the repeated references to the second person – fourteen over the fourteen lines. The closing image, characteristically Shakespearean, is either comical or macabre, but certainly graphic.

Question: how far do you think that “vial” (line 4) is a successful metaphor for “womb”?

Sonnet 7

Summary: the span of a single human life resembles the passage of the sun across the sky: revered at first, admired at its peak, but ignored when in “feeble” decline. Without an heir, the poet’s friend faces the fate of the setting sun, which “Unlook’d on diest”.

Note: the force of the argument depends on the aptness of the analogy, which may or may not convince.  The structure of the poem is persuasive, however: twelve lines given over to the third person, followed by a final rhyming couplet addressed to “thou”. The religious imagery here (“homage”, “sacred”, “heavenly”, “pilgrimage” etc) is a notable feature.

Question: to what extent does the poet appeal to the youth’s self-interest in this sonnet?

Sonnet 8

Summary: the poet’s friend (whose voice resembles music to listen to) ironically takes little pleasure in music.  Yet its harmonies, built out of combinations of sounds, are a gentle rebuke to him, with the “one pleasing note” they create.  Conversely, to be single is effectively to “prove none”.

Note: the poet offers a glimpse into his friend’s personality in lines 3 and 4.  He is one who takes pleasure in pain, it seems – a summary not foreshadowed in the opening couplet, and one that makes incongruous the complacent image of the “happy mother” in line 11.  The closing rhyme, with its semantic dissonance (one / none), echoes the repeated “one” of lines 9 and 12.

Question: how far do you feel that combinations of notes resemble “sire, and child, and happy mother”?

Sonnet 9

Summary: perhaps the poet’s friend avoids marriage so as not to distress his eventual widow, but everyone loses by his reluctance to marry and procreate.  After all, when beauty does not result in procreation, it is ultimately destroyed by time – selfishness leading to an act of self-harm.

Note: It seems unlikely that the answer to the opening question is “yes”. If it is nevertheless correct, then the argument in lines 11 and 12 (“beauty unused will be lost”) is not really a counter-argument, and the description of his friend’s mind-set (“murderous shame”) seems somewhat exaggerated.  A sonnet suggestive, perhaps, of the all-male group among whom these poems circulated.

Question: “No love towards others” – is the poet being unduly harsh towards the “fair youth” here?

Sonnet 10

Summary: the poet’s friend is widely loved, but he is also prey to self-hatred, and this inhibits him from procreation. The poet himself is among his admirers, and his friend should listen to him and “Make thee another self” if for no other reason than out of love for the poet himself.

Note: a poem built around contrasts – a much-loved youth who loves “none”; a valued friend but one “possess’d with murd’rous hate”; a young man liable to “ruinate” his own family tree, which “to repair” should be a priority. This tenth sonnet contains the first reference to “I”, and closes on a further contrast summarised, perhaps, in the concluding rhyme.

Question: “possessed with murd’rous hate” – does the poet’s exaggeration undermine his case?

Sonnet 11

Summary: a child of yours remains yours, the poet tells his friend, though he may grow quickly, and his youth will warm your old age. If no-one reproduced, the human race would be dead in seventy years. Nature has been generous to you, and expects you to create others in your own image.

Note: though occasionally guilty of exaggeration, the sonnet may be taken at face value until the closing line reveals a metaphor apparently drawn from a world familiar to the author (“print … copy…”). The poem posits a choice between a rich old age (“wisdom, beauty and increase”) and a less desirable version: “folly, age and cold decay”.

Question: how convincing is the argument presented in lines 7 and 8?

Sonnet 12

Summary:  The poet feels he is surrounded by evidence of time passing: the chiming clock, the darkening hour, the fading flower, the greying hair, the falling leaves, the crops at autumn.  His friend’s beauty will face the same process of decay – except through reproduction and having children.

Note: everyday objects have a somewhat morbid significance in this sonnet. The “bier” (or cart) is for carrying in the crops, but here will play a funereal role. The “scythe” is for harvesting, but here has a more macabre function.  We are surrounded by decay, from which procreation alone protects us.

Question: do you feel that this kind of list (lines 1 – 8) is evidence that the poet protests to much?

Sonnet 13

Summary: your many virtues will only survive beyond the length of your life, the poet tells his friend, if you extend their “lease” through “sweet issue”, or procreation. Then why, he asks, would you let the family line (“so fair a house”) die out without “husbandry”, with the many implications of the word.

Note: the opening eight lines use the second person pronoun 14 times, reflecting the intensity and ardour of the poet’s feelings, expressed by the vocative “love” in the opening line.  For balance, perhaps, the formal “you” is used here (rather than the more intimate “thou”) for the first time in the Sonnets.

Question: can we fairly deduce that the “fair youth” was an aristocrat from this kind of poem?

Sonnet 14

Summary: there are many things I can’t predict or divine, the poet tells his friend in the octet.  But your eyes tell me, he continues, that procreation will allow your truth and beauty to live on and “thrive”, whilst failure to reproduce would bring “beauty’s doom and date”.

Note: the focus of the poem moves after the octet from the poet himself (about whom, for the first time in the sequence, we learn something specific, his knowledge of astronomy) to his friend, whose pronouns dominate the sestet (“thine … thyself … thou … thee … Thy …).

Question: choose three adjectives that describe the octave and three to describe the sestet.

Sonnet 15

Summary: everything on earth, whether animal or vegetable, has its moment of perfection, but is ultimately subject to time.  This insight (or “conceit”) triggers thoughts of the poet’s friend, “most rich in youth”, and as Time reduces him, so these rhymes give him permanence and keep him new.

Note: lines 3 and 4, which describe the world as a stage and life as a show, anticipate the reflective insights of Prospero in “The Tempest”. But they add little to the flow of the argument rehearsed in this sonnet. The metaphor in “engraft”, drawn from gardening, connects with “grows”, “plants” and “sap”.

Question: “all in war with time” – is the poet presenting a one-sided view of time in these poems?

Sonnet 16

Summary: art is not life, and the poet’s friend needs more than sonnets (“my barren rhyme”) to survive, especially when many young women would be open to his appeal.  Paintings and poems cannot help to confer immortality either: he must look to himself to survive the “tyrant, Time”.

Note: many of the Procreation Sonnets imply that art can confer immortality.  But Sonnet 16 argues that “my barren rhyme” is less fertile than “maiden gardens”, and that a portrait (“your painted counterfeit”) less like his friend than children (“living flowers”).  Authentic “lines of life” cannot be drawn by “my pupil pen”, the poet concludes.

Question: “maiden gardens … living flowers …” – do these opening sonnets present a demeaning view of women?

Sonnet 17

Summary:  The poet believes that any objective view of his verse would say he understates his friend’s beauty.  Yet these sonnets will no doubt look like exaggeration in years to come, and – as evidence of his friend’s appeal – will be ignored. Having a child would prove his point.

Note:  Three metaphors: at first the poet describes the sonnets as resembling “a tomb”, concealing as much as they reveal. But if they’re seen as exaggerations, he says, they’ll be scorned and shunned “like old men”.  A child would give the poems credibility – would help them “live”.

Question: why do you think the poet chose this to be the last of his Procreation Sonnets?


One Hundred Word Endnote:

Shakespeare seems to have composed his 154 sonnets largely for private entertainment, circulated and appreciated among friends.  Their existence was first revealed in a book by Francis Meres in 1598, and two were published in 1599, probably without their author’s permission. 

The entire collection appeared in 1609, but there the certainties end. The identity of the dedicatee (“Mr W.H.”) is disputed, and anyway he is not necessarily the subject of the poems; at least two lovers are addressed, and probably more than two; and it is highly unlikely the poems were written in the order in which they are printed.


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