A Study Guide for Shakespeare's Sonnet 1

Understand the themes, sequences and style of the poem

Sonnet 1 is the first of 17 poems by Shakespeare that focus on a beautiful young man having children to pass on his lovely genes to a new generation. It is one of the better poems in the series of Fair Youth Sonnets, which has led to speculation that, despite its name, it was not actually the first written of the group. Rather, it was chosen as the first sonnet in the folio because it is so compelling.

 

With this study guide, better understand the themes, sequences and style of Sonnet 1. Doing so can assist you as you write a critical analysis of the poem or prepare for a test on Shakespeare's sonnets.

The Poem's Message

Procreation and obsession with beauty are the major themes of Sonnet 1, which is written in iambic pentameter and follows traditional sonnet form. In the poem, Shakespeare suggests that if the fair youth does not have children, it would be selfish, as it would deprive the world of his beauty. Instead of hoarding his loveliness, the young man should share it with future generations. If not, he will be remembered as a narcissist. Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?

The reader must remember that the poet becomes obsessed with the fair youth and his life choices. Also, perhaps the fair youth isn't selfish but simply hesitant to have sexual relations with a woman.

He may be homosexual, but such a sexual orientation was not accepted in society at that time.

By encouraging the youth to partake in a male/female relationship, one could speculate that the poet attempts to deny his own romantic feelings toward the young man.

Analysis and Translation

The sonnet is addressed to the poet’s very handsome friend.

The reader is unaware of his identity or whether he existed at all. The poet’s preoccupation with the fair youth starts here and continues through 126 poems. It is therefore plausible that he did exist, as he must have made an impact to inspire all of this work.

In the poem, Shakespeare uses a rose analogy that draws upon the seasons to make his point. He does this in later poems, including the famous Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day, where he uses autumn and winter to describe death.

In Sonnet 1, however, he alludes to spring. This makes sense, as the poem discusses procreation and the fair youth enjoying being young without thinking about the future.

Important Lines From Sonnet 1

Get better acquainted with Sonnet 1 with this roundup of key lines from the poem and their significance. 

  • “That thereby beauty’s rose might never die.” In other words, time will take its toll on your looks, but your heir will remind the world of how beautiful you once were.
  • “But as the riper should by time decrease / His tender heir might bear his memory.” Here, the poet tells the fair youth that he's so obsessed with his own beauty that he's creating a shortage of it, when he could be populating the world with it.
  • “Pity the world, or else this glutton be / To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.” The poet wants the young man to know that he has an obligation to reproduce, or else be remembered for his refusal to do so.