Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Sonnet 1

This is the first of 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare. It may not necessarily have been written first but looking at the poems in the order that has been widely accepted makes for an unravelling of a rather interesting love triangle. Sonnet 1 is a procreation sonnet, part of the “Fair Youth” sequence in which a young man whose identity till present day is unknown (the beloved) who is addressed by the persona, Shakespeare (the lover).

Line one seems to basically illustrate a pretty common rule of life, we desire more of the good. However, in using the word “we” the poet quickly establishes a common ground between himself and the reader whilst also introducing the comparison between himself and the “Fair Youth”, a difference in ideology to be further explored later. Use of the word “fairest”, the superlative form of the word fair begins the exultation of the beloved as only the highest level of beauty can be associated with this individual.
The reverse word order in “ beauty’s rose” becomes synecdoche or a metonymy thereby turning exultation into immortalisation, even the rose, widely considered the best and most symbolic flower is struck at par to this “Fair Youth” maybe even higher as the wish is “he might never die”. How can the persona desire immortalisation for another and not himself? This is the greatest level of selflessness and yet the conjunction “But” seems to extinguish all such reveries. It is like a submission to fate, a submission to the effects of time, all should decrease no matter how beautiful, no matter how desirable. All including the beloved will submit to the “riper” stage and the inevitability of shrivelling, of parching, of dwindling and yet this is not the problem. It is presented in such a categorical tone that it does not invoke any feelings of sadness. The inevitability portrayed make it not feel like death to the reader but rather a stage that one must go through.
A successor must rise from the death of the beloved, just as “tender” as he is, to lengthen the legacy. The persona knows what should happen which leaves one questioning whether it is actually what will happen. An interesting idea takes root in this line though it lacks irrefutable substantiation. Could Shakespeare be referring to himself as the “Fair Youth” who should seek an heir to continue in his artistic footsteps? Is it even fair to fathom that he could be such an egomaniac bordering on megalomaniac? Could he think himself so indispensable, so vital to the World as shown later in the poem? It is certainly not intellectually impossible for William Shakespeare to manufacture a poem seemingly based on another whilst only casting himself through another’s eyes or even more interestingly how he would have liked to be perceived.
The next quatrain starts with the word “But” which introduces a contrast between the persona’s philosophy which he has described to this point almost like convention. Use of the word “contracted” gives the sense that the subject of the poem is bound inextricably to the power of his grace and flamboyance.
Line six introduces the idea of complete independence, the “Fair Youth” desireth not even the persona’s praise. It is probably the highest point in any life when one needs not another to praise and glorify them. The “Fair Youth” knows his worth and needs no telling and yet the poet insists this is self destruction, “thy self thy foe” “famine where abundance lies”, for the good of all may the beloved not place reliance on his own might. A closer look at the first two quatrains might reveal an address of the current situation, a blossoming flower with no intention of passing on its brightness versus a self-proclaimed analyst and advisor describing what the situation should be like. This gives way to the rest of the poem : a plea to the “Fair Youth”.
The archaic diction, “Thou that art” though quite common at the time of composition of the poem creates for the contemporary reader the sense of authority within the poet’s words thereby conjuring a now or never kind of atmosphere.
Shakespeare continues with what now strangely sounds like flattery, “world’s fresh ornament” “only herald to gaudy spring”. How can one individual be paralleled against the world? How can all of Spring’s blossoms, colours, scents, creatures be outweighed by this one individual? A pedestal too high? A love too strong?
And yet the subject of this verse buries their valour “within thine own bud” content with keeping it to themselves.
The concluding couplet is a final plea to the “Fair Youth” to heed Shakespeare’s call. He has the power to pity the world. The power to make everyone happy. Like the ultimate demigod, the power to do evil to the world “eat the world’s due” or do good: produce “tender heir to bear his memory”.

In many respects the could not be a better introduction to a series of poems, a better introduction to the “ Fair Youth” and what Shakespeare feels for him. The true magic of Sonnet 1 is in hindsight it is like an autobiography except it would be someone else pleading with Shakespeare to share his talent with the world for surely it would “glutton be” had he not shared his plays and poetry.