In a sense, Shakespeare’s first sonnet is more of a command than a poem. The narrator does not name himself, but he speaks with authority and in a way suggesting a relationship with the person to whom the poem is addressed. This in turn goes to the meaning of the sonnet, which in graceful language and imagery makes the case that it is the responsibility of a beautiful, young person to pass on that beauty for the future. There is no arguing with this, as the narrator states it, and the confidence adds impact to the poem. Ultimately, then, Shakespeare’s first sonnet is a powerful and poetic command to a friend, and one insisting on that friend’s obligation to have children so that his beauty will live forever.
In discussing the first sonnet of William Shakespeare, it is first important to note that the narrator and the theme of the poem are connected. Each has meaning in regard to the other, so analysis of theme or meaning translates to discussing the voice of the narrator. In fact, that voice sets the tone of the sonnet. The speaker never identifies himself directly and there is no pronoun to even indicate a personal voice. However, it is a voice of great authority. This goes to the meaning because the narrator is so passionate about the subject, as is seen in the first line: “From fairest creatures we desire increase” (L 1). The narrator is speaking for the world as well as himself here, and presenting a plain reality. The world demands that those who are beautiful should have children, and the reason is provided right away: “That thereby beauty’s rose might never die” (L 2). Children are not mentioned but the implication is impossible to miss; “increase” translates to having children, and they will carry on the beauty of the parent for the world to enjoy. This emphasis on actual obligation is the force and the core of the sonnet, so meaning and the speaker’s presence are completely connected. That meaning is a lesson that the narrator needs to teach.
Everything the narrator has to say is presented with the same absolute confidence in the truth of the statements. He becomes softer in the next lines, explaining more how, as the beautiful parent ages, the child will be living evidence of the beauty: “His tender heir might bear his memory” (L 4). In this case, the language goes to a literal translation of “bearing,” and the memory is the image of beauty of the parent. The force of the narrator, however, return very soon. The poem goes in another direction, and one of direct accusation. This is no lesson for a friend who simply has not yet had children: “But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes” (L 5). This is meant for someone who has made a choice and who seems to be happy with only himself. The strong suggestion is of vanity or narcissism.
The “contract” implies a love of the self that has no need for any other human connection, and the poem’s object: “Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel” (L 6). In other words, he is satisfied to carry on a love affair with his own beauty, and his appreciation of it keeps the “relationship” in place. This is completely wrong to the narrator, because it robs the world of a wonderful opportunity plainly in place. The friend is defying reason itself: “Making a famine where abundance lies” (L 7), and the narrator’s clear purpose is to make him see the mistake he is making. Moreover, this failure to have children harms the beautiful friend as well: “Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel” (L 8). In making this choice or being in love with himself, the friend is cheating himself of the joy of seeing his beauty live on.
The rest of the poem essentially restates this message in other figures of speech. Right now, the friend is young and beautiful, but he is also the “messenger” of beauty that is to come: “Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,/ And only herald to the gaudy spring” (ll 9-10). It is, the narrator is insisting, the time to act and fulfill his promise. Instead, however, the friend remains selfish: “Within thine own bud buriest thy content” (L 11). The point cannot be mistaken; as it is, the boy is dooming his beauty to die, keeping it all locked up within himself. The final couplet then goes to the actual demand: “Pity the world, or else this glutton be,/ To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee” (ll 13-14). The first three words here say a great deal. The world deserves to see beauty live on, and the boy must understand this. Moreover, a failure to understand means that the friend will deliberately cheat the world.
In all of this, a personal relationship between poet and object is strongly implied. Put another way, it would be strange if someone unknown to the object of the poem would be so concerned as to that person’s having children. This is a powerfully personal demand being made, and this in turn underscores another kind of selfishness. That is, there is the sense that the speaker wants to see the boy’s beauty live on as much as he feels that this is the right of the world. As noted, then, the tone of the voice completely goes to the theme or meaning of the sonnet, and the message is clear and strong.
Sonnets and poems are often subject to interpretation. Even literal ideas presented in them may disguise other meanings. This is not the case with Shakespeare’s first sonnet. In plain terms, it offers one person’s absolute conviction in how beauty must be passed on through children, and that the boy in question is irresponsibly and selfishly refusing to do this. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1 is then a powerful and poetic order to a friend, and one that insists on the friend’s obligation to have children so that his beauty will live forever.