Sonnet 1 is the first in a series of 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare that were published in 1609. They were published without the authorization of Shakespeare himself, but the order remained the same and the sonnets continue to be read with this sonnet as the 1st in the sequence. Analyzing the sonnets in this order allows for an underlying story of a love triangle to emerge. Sonnet 1 is part of the "Fair Youth" sonnets, in which an unnamed young man (the beloved) is being addressed by the speaker (the lover) and later sonnets also refer to a "dark lady" (thus they are called the "Dark Lady" sonnets). Patrick Cheney comments on this: "Beginning with a putatively male speaker imploring a beautiful young man to reproduce, and concluding with a series of poems – the dark lady poems – that affiliate consummated heterosexual passion with incurable disease, Shakespeare's Sonnets radically and deliberately disrupt the conventional narrative of erotic courtship". Because of this, Sonnet 1 instantly attracts interest as being a kind of introduction (or possibly an index) to the rest of the sonnets. The 1st sonnet is also the first of the "procreation sonnets" (sonnets 1 – 17; excluding 15), which urge this youth to not waste his beauty by failing to marry or reproduce. Joseph Pequigney notes: "… the opening movement give expression to one compelling case… The first mode of preservation entertained is procreation, which is urged without letup in the first fourteen poems and twice again".
The identity of the beloved "Fair Youth" has remained a mystery, but most researchers believe there are two potential candidates for whom the dedication of the "Fair Youth" Sonnets was written: "Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton (1573-1624), or William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke (1580-1630)". Both were patrons of Shakespeare but at different times – Wriothesley in the 1590s and Herbert in the 1600s. There is trouble finding out which earl it might have been because sonnets were in fashion in the 1590s but Shakespeare's were not published until 1609.
See: Identity of "Mr. W.H."
In Sonnet 1, we begin to see the "love story" between the fair youth (beloved) and the speaker (lover) unfold, though not the typical "love story" of the Elizabethan era if read this way. However, each of Shakespeare's sonnets can still be read as separate from the other sonnets. In this sonnet, the speaker engages in an argument with the beloved/fair youth about procreation: "An agon, a dramatic struggle, develops between the speaker and the youth". Scholar Helen Vendler sums up Sonnet 1 quite nicely: "The different rhetorical moments of this sonnet (generalizing reflection, reproach, injunction, prophecy) are permeable to one another's metaphors, so that the rose of philosophical reflection yields the bud of direct address, and the famine of address yields the glutton who, in epigram, eats the world's due".
Read more about this topic: Sonnet 1
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