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,
Thyself 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, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
The first seventeen sonnets are addressed to the poet’s breathtaking friend, whose identity is unknown, assuming he existed at all. The poet’s focus in these sonnets is to persuade his friend to start a family, so that his beauty can live on through his children. Note the similarities between Sonnet 1 and Romeo and Juliet (1.1.201-206).
From fairest creatures (1): From all beautiful creatures.
we desire increase (1): we want offspring.
riper (3): more ripe.
contracted to (5): bound only to.
Feed’st thy light’s…fuel (6): Feed your eyes (light’s flame) with only the sight of yourself – i.e., you are self-consumed.
only (10): chief.
gaudy (10): showy (not used in the modern pejorative sense); from Middle English gaude, a yellowish green color or pigment.
niggarding (12): hoarding.
the world’s due (14): what you owe to the world, i.e. the perpetuation of your beauty. The grave, which will already consume the young man’s body, will also eat any chance of his beauty living on, if the young man helps the grave by himself being gluttonous (in his refusal to have children). Steevens conjectures that the line should read “‘To eat the world’s due, be thy grave and thee;’ i.e. be at once thyself, and thy grave” (Alden, p. 19)