Scanning Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Sonnet 1

In this post I aim to provide a careful metrical analysis of Shakespeare’s opening sonnet, and hope to illustrate how an understanding of meter can enhance our appreciation of his work.

Some feet combine with each other to form metrical figures, and I have not divided the figures into individual feet. Those figures in red contain displaced beats. For more detail on feet, figures and displaced beats, see my three posts on ‘Iambic Pentameter & the Principles of Metrical Variation’. And here’s a link to a glossary, which you may find it useful to skim through before reading further (every word I highlight in blue will take you to the glossary if you click on it. Words highlighted in pink will take you to another relevant post).

Here’s my scansion of Shakespeare’s opening Sonnet – first without, then with, foot divisions:-

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, mak’st waste in niggarding:

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.




From fair | est crea | tures we desire | increase
That there | by beau | ty’s Rose | might ne | ver die
But as | the ri | per should | by time | decease
His ten | der heir | might bear | his me | mory:

But thou, | contrac | ted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame | with self | substan | tial fuel,
Making a fa | mine where abun | dance lies,
Thyself | thy foe, | to thy sweet self | too cruel:

Thou that art now | the world’s fresh or | nament,
And on | ly he | rald to the gau | dy spring,
Within | thine own | bud bu | riest thy | content
And, tender churl, | mak’st waste in ni | ggarding:

Pity the world, | or else | this glu |tton be,
To eat | the world’s | due, by | the grave | and thee.


Some points of interest, line by line (and it would be a good idea to have a copy of the sonnet open in front of you while you read this!):-

First quatrain

Line 1.

From fairest creatures we desire increase

From fair | est crea | tures we desire | increase

The opening line is a balanced line (see also my first post on Simple variations).

This particular balanced line is given heightened balance through the interplay of iambic and trochaic rhythm: it starts off with the falling, trochaic sound of ‘fairest creatures’, and then, through the run of light syllables, rises into the iambic ‘desire increase‘ – and, of course, the rising rhythm provides an aural sensation of ‘increase’!

And the sense of balance is heightened still further by the consonance and assonance of ‘creatures’ and ‘increase‘.

What a wonderful line, and what a perfect way to start the sonnet sequence!


Line 2.

That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die

That there | by beau | ty’s Rose | might ne | ver die

The second line initially imitates the trochaic rhythm that opens the first: in place of ‘…fairest creatures’, we have ‘…thereby beauty’s’. This time, the forward falling rhythm breaks against the monosyllabic ‘Rose‘, serving to provide that word with heightened emphasis (the first word, ‘thereby’, is naturally more drawn out, followed by the swift release of ‘beauty’s Rose‘).

It is then followed by the quick, compact ‘…might never die‘ – and this time, the short, quick vowel sounds in ‘…might never..’ provide a sharp, crisp emphasis to the final word ‘…die‘. Note, too, the assonance of ‘might’ and ‘die’, and the crisp clarity provided by the ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds.


Line 3.

But as the riper should by time decease

But as | the ri | per should | by time | decease

Note how the word ‘increase‘ at the end of line 1, is here met, not by it’s antonym, ‘decrease‘, but by the bleaker, more permanent ‘decease‘. In anticipation of this, this line more thoughtfully slows down the pace.

For a start, the rhythm becomes predominantly iambic (which automatically slows down the pace, because the trochaic rhythm is swifter): there is only the one trochaic word – ‘riper’ – which is met by the simple, decisive ‘should‘.

Then we get to the word ‘time‘. In contrast to the word ‘desire‘ in line 1, which immediately glides into ‘increase‘ because of the lack of any consonant cluster (the ‘r’ at the end of ‘desire‘ meets the ‘i’ at the beginning of ‘increase‘), the word ‘time‘ ends on a nasal consonant which has the opportunity to linger, being jammed up against the ‘d’ of  ‘decease‘.

Note also, the careful assonance of ‘riper’ and ‘by time‘ (assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound).

All in all, this line carefully sets us up for the denouement of the first quatrain.


Line 4. And here’s the pay-off!

His tender heir might bear his memory

His ten | der heir | might bear | his me | mory:

The all-important word, ‘heir‘ (the word which really gets to the crux of the purpose of this sonnet: to persuade the listener to produce an ‘heir’ before his own ‘decease’) is delivered to us swiftly and dramatically: the falling, trochaic ‘tender’ glides straight into the word ‘heir‘ – a word which catches our attention all the more because it immediately repeats the open ‘eh‘ sound in ‘tender’.

And to further highlight the central importance of this word, it is immediately rhymed by the word ‘bear‘ (a word which also has connotations of ‘bringing into the world’. There is a possible pun here, related to the word ‘heir’ – see ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones).

And note as well, the similarity between ‘heir might bear‘ and ‘thereby beauty’s’ from two lines earlier: ‘heirrhymes with ‘there…’, ‘mightassonates with ‘by‘, and ‘bearalliterates with ‘beauty‘.

And to top it all, the open ‘eh’ sound is repeated once again in the final word ‘memory’. This is, fittingly, the last accented syllable of the line, after which we elegantly glide into the final flourish of the appended pyrrhic


Second quatrain

Line 5. …only to be pulled up short by the blunt, accusatory opening spondee, ‘But thou…!

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

But thou, | contrac | ted to thine own bright eyes,

The following word, ‘contracted’, phonetically recalls ‘creatures’ in the opening line of the first quatrain, with it’s shared ‘k’, ‘ch’ and ‘r’ sounds; and then glides straight into a paeon-spondee (di-di-di-dumdumdum), dramatically reinforcing the emphatic tone established by the opening spondee, and shifting attention from ‘thou‘ to ‘thine own bright eyes‘. As with the word ‘time‘ in line 3, we have a nasal consonant at the end of the word ‘own‘ pressing up against another consonant; and then the swift, dramatic spondee, ‘bright eyes‘ – the impact of which is heightened both by the assonance, and by the repetition of the opening ‘b‘ sound of the first spondee.

Like the first line of the opening quatrain, the middle beat is unstressed: it is a balanced line – but this time modified by a spondee at either end!

Note too, the clever wordplay with the use of the word ‘contracted’: it means bothdiminishedandpledged‘, as in a ‘contract of marriage’ (he is pledged to himself, rather than a woman with whom he could procreate). This is a nice illustration of why Shakespeare was so fond of puns: they create a compact, rich multiplicity of allusions.


Line 6.

Feed’st thy light’s flame with self substantial fuel,

Feed’st thy light’s flame | with self | substan | tial fuel,

Opens with a 2nd epitrite: in place of the opening spondee of the previous line, the spondee is now thrust forward by an opening trochee – and for good measure, we have the striking alliteration of ‘Feed’st‘ and ‘flame‘, picking up the alliteration from the opening of the sonnet (‘From fairest…’); the ‘f’ an ‘l’ sounds of ‘flame‘ are then repeated in ‘self‘ and ‘fuel‘.

And the remaining stressed syllable of the 2nd epitrite, ‘light’s’, repeats the assonance of the end-line spondee at the end of the previous line (in fact, it even rhymes with ‘bright‘), and it’s the intial ‘l‘ of this word that begins the string of L’s that run through the rest of the line.

And recalling the S‘s of ‘increase‘ and ‘decease‘ in the opening quatrain, a fresh pattern of S‘s are begun with ‘self substantial‘.

Another distinguishing feature of this line is the way it’s clogged up with consonant clusters (a consonant cluster is any grouping together of consonants, either within a word or in adjacent words: for instance, “…light’s flame” contains the consonant cluster ‘t, s, f, l‘, where the two words join). The congested effect of the consonant clusters seems to me very much an “echo to the sense” (as Alexander Pope put it!) of self-glutting and non-procreation.

(Note too, the change in metaphor from the procreative organic in the 1st quatrain to the non-procreative inorganic in the 2nd. As Helen Vendler put it in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘The juxtaposing of two incompatible categories is one of Shakespeare’s most reliable techniques for provoking thought in the reader’).


Line 7.

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Making a fa | mine where abun | dance lies,

And, halfway through the 2nd quatrain, we launch into the choriamb-paeon:-

dum-di-di-dum-di-di-di-dum!

(Like line 5, this is a modified balanced line – this time modified by the opening trochee).

The last syllable of the choriamb (‘Making a famine…’) continues the alliteration of F’s; and the final stressed syllable of the following paeon (‘abun…’) recalls the ‘b‘ of ‘beauty’s Rose‘, ‘bear‘, ‘But thou…’, and ‘bright eyes‘. Again, with this syllable we have a nasal ‘n‘ pressed up against another consonant – so after the run-up provided by the choriamb and the run of light syllables of the paeon, we can really relish the emphasis on ‘abundance’.

And the final stress, ‘lies‘, stretches out the string of L’s from the last line.

Note, too, the string of trisyllabic words over the last three lines, all with the same ‘di-dum-di’ stress pattern: we have ‘contracted’ in the 2nd foot of Line 5; then we have the word ‘substantial’, which we find pushed forward to the 4th foot of Line 6, after being introduced by the word ‘self‘; and then ‘abundance’ in the exact same 4th foot position of this line. A sense of forward movement is created, which is brought to a conclusion by the prolonged emphasis on the ‘n‘ in ‘abundance’ at the end of the choriamb-paeon. And the accumulative effect is heightened still further by the fact that we have an ‘n‘ in the exact same position on the line, at the end of the 4th foot, as in the previous two lines! The accumulative effect is one of contained energy being released!


Line 8.

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:

Thyself | thy foe, | to thy sweet self | too cruel:

And after the swift, energetic release of the previous line, we now hit the most steadily emphatic line so far!

We start off with two simple emphatic iambs: ‘Thyself | thy foe’ (and again, the F’s! – ‘foe‘ even arrives at the same 4th syllable placement as the previous line’s ‘famine’).

Which are then succeeded by a slow, emphatic 1st epitrite (and again, the S‘s, and the reference to ‘self‘, tying this line to line 6).

Which is then followed by a final spondee! A spondee which is heightened further by the near assonance of ‘too cruel‘ – which, in turn, echoes the spondaic, assonating ‘bright eyes‘ at the end of Line 5. However, as well as echoingbright eyes‘, it also contrasts with it: the short vowels of ‘bright eyes‘ lend it a quick, vibrant delivery; whereas the long vowels of ‘too cruel‘ lend it a drawn out, weary delivery.

This has been a quatrain of alternating contrasts!


Third quatrain

Line 9.

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,

Thou that art now | the world’s fresh or | nament,

Our last 2nd epitrite made it’s mark launching the 2nd line of the second quatrain, building on the opening spondee of the 1st line. It now occupies pride of place at the very beginning of this final quatrain.

Both these 2nd epitrites possess a heightened sense of cohesion as a result of similarities between the beat syllables at either end of the figure : the first through alliteration (Feed’st & flame); the second through rhyme (Thou & now).

It is followed by a 1st epitrite – in exactly the same position as the 1st epitrite in line 8. At the same time, it contrasts with the previous 1st epitrite in it’s content: whereas the 1st epitrite at the end of the second quatrain contained a narrow focus (‘to thy sweet self‘), this 1st epitrite at the beginning of the final quatrain, has an expansive focus (‘the world’s fresh ornament’).

The word ‘fresh‘ contains both the alliterative ‘f‘ of ‘flame‘, ‘famine’ and ‘foe‘, and the open ‘eh’ sound of ‘tender heir‘ and ‘self‘.

The appended pyrrhic at the end provides a smooth flow into the next line…


Line 10.

And only herald to the gaudy spring,

And on | ly he | rald to the gau | dy spring,

And we have another balanced line, echoing the balanced line that opened this sonnet. However, this time the trochaic rhythm is carried through all the way to the end until breaking against the final word ‘spring‘ – the final alliterative ‘s‘ in this sonnet, thereby linking this line to lines 6 & 8.

There are also assonances linking this line to the previous line: the vowel sounds in the stressed syllables of ‘ fresh ornament’ are echoed in the stressed syllables of ‘herald’ & ‘gaudy’ (even though there is some distance between these two syllables, they are consecutive stresses – separated by a run of three light syllables).


Line 11.

Within thine own bud buriest thy content

Within | thine own | bud bu | riest thy | content

 A phrasal juncture after the 5th syllable in a metrically unvaried line can produce interesting phrasal patterns (incidentally, a break after an odd syllable, such as this one, is called a lyric caesura; a break after an even syllable is called a masculine caesura).

If we split this line up into phrasal units, we get:-

Within

thine own bud

buriest

thy content

So the phrasal patterns are:-

di-dum              (iambic)

di-dum-di        (this pattern is called an amphibrach)

dum-di              (a trochaic pattern, and the inverse of an iamb)

dum-di-dum  (this pattern is called a cretic, which is an inverted amphibrach!)

So we have an inverted symmetry with two alternating pairs of opposites. The line is split right in the middle, and the inverted symmetry creates an effect where the second half of the line answers the first in a very distinct way.

And again the B’s of ‘bud buriest’, recalling  ‘beauty’s Rose‘, ‘bear‘,  ‘But thou…’, ‘bright eyes‘ and ‘abundance’.

We also have another pun with the word content, which means both ‘happiness’ and ‘contents’, i.e. the innermost wealth of his beauty. And ‘content‘continues the assonance of ‘fresh‘ and ‘herald’.


Line 12.

And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding:

And, tender churl, | mak’st waste in ni | ggarding:

As with the first line of this quatrain, we have two consecutive epitritesending with the flourish of an appended pyrrhic.

This time round it’s two consecutive 3rd epitrites – which stand out all the more because they are the only 3rd epitrites in this sonnet.

And, tender churl‘ at the beginning of the last line of the last quatrain, echoes ‘His tender heir‘ at the beginning of the last line of the first quatrain. ‘Churl‘ also shares it’s ‘url‘ sound with ‘world’s‘ from the first line of the quatrain (‘world‘ and ‘world’s‘ then appear in the same 4th syllable position as ‘churl‘ in the final couplet). And ‘tender’ completes the sequence of assonance on the open ‘eh’: ‘fresh‘, ‘herald’, ‘content‘, ‘tender’.

Mak’st waste in niggarding’ contains both the near rhyme of ‘mak’st waste‘ and the assonance of ‘in niggarding’.

As with the two 2nd epitrites, Shakespeare has used certain tricks to lend these figures a heightened sense of cohesion (albeit in contrasting ways on this occasion: the first by creating connections with the previous lines of the quatrain; the second by creating internal connections within the two pairs of syllables).

And we also have repetition with difference (I gave another example of repetition with difference with two consecutive 2nd epitrites in Part 2). The first 3rd epitrite opens with a split spondee (a spondee with a break in the middle), and the split is followed by the trochaic, falling sound of ‘tender’; and the second 3rd epitrite has a separation after the 3rd syllable (just like the example I gave in Part 2). So the overall rhythm is more varied and expressive than a stolid: dumdum-di-dum | dumdum-di-dum-di-di; instead, we have dumdum-di dum | dumdum-di / dum-di-di. A break after the first syllable of the first figure contrasts with a separation before the last syllable of the second figure.

As well as each individual line of this final quatrain possessing a certain symmetry, there is also a certain symmetry to the quatrain as a whole: as I have already mentioned, the first and last lines of the quatrain both consist of two consecutive epitrites tailed off with an appended pyrrhic; and on top of this, the phrasal junctures of these two lines both come after the 4th syllable, and the phrasal junctures of the two middle lines both come after the 5th syllable.

Incidentally, it is a juncture after the 2nd beat (i.e. after the 4th or 5th syllable) that creates the strongest rhythmical cohesion in an iambic pentameter line.


The couplet

Line 13.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

Pity the world, | or else | this glu |tton be,

After the appeal to common wisdom in the 1st quatrain, and the reproach of the 2nd, the 3rd quatrain repeated the reproach of the 2nd. The positive exhortation one might have expected to see in the 3rd quatrain, to urge the addressee (a young man, as it turns out) to change his course of action, has now been squeezed into the opening choriamb of the closing couplet: ‘Pity the world‘. And we move straight on to the prophetic warning: ‘or else…’. With which we have the final open ‘e‘ of this sonnet.

And we have the most prominent B of the sonnet, with the end-line ‘be‘.


Line 14.

To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

To eat | the world’s | due, by | the grave | and thee.

And we have the final B, opening the final phrase of the sonnet: “by the grave and thee“.

And that word “by” also contains the final “igh” sound, which has trickled its way through the whole sonnet: starting with the yearning “desire“, carrying through to “might…die“, “riper”, “time“; to the tight “bright eyes“, carrying through to “light’s“, “lies” and the repeated use of “thine” and “thy”; until we reach this final line, in which – in contrast to the yearning, hopeful “igh” of the opening line – we have the mournful “igh” of despair and loss.

Finally, as with the penultimate line of the 3rd quatrain, we have a metrically unvaried line with a break right in the middle. The patterning here is a little different. Here are the phrasal units:-

To eat

the world’s due,

by the grave

and thee.

And here are the phrasal patterns:-

di-dum              (iamb)

di-dum-di        (amphibrachic pattern)

dum-di-dum (cretic pattern)

di-dum              (iamb)

So in the middle we have the inverted symmetry of the amphibrach/cretic. The cretic ‘answers’ the amphibrach; and the final iamb, ‘and thee’, echoes the opening iamb, ‘To eat‘ – both by pattern and assonance.

This closing line of the sonnet contains a heightened sense of balance between the two halves of the line, elegantly answering the symmetry of the opening line.

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4 thoughts on “Scanning Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Sonnet 1

  1. I or rather my ear agrees with your scansion, but in the very first line I hear “we” stressed, and “to” stressed in the example of line ten. Fine and necessary work, and I wish many more could read this and of them at least a few who go on to further study and perhaps trying their hand at metrical verse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Alan!

      I agree that there is a light stress on those two syllables (nowhere near a full stress – if they were pronounced with a full stress, the effect of the lines would be very different).

      My own notational system allows for five different levels of stress, but I have no idea how to replicate that with a keyboard! I outline my notational system at the end of ‘Part 2’ in my series on ‘Iambic pentameter and the principles of metrical variation’, and add further detail in my review of ‘The Strict Metrical Tradition’ in my ‘Further reading’ section at the end of ‘Part 3’.

      Within my own notational system I would have marked those two paeons with a semi-circle on top of the arrow above those 2nd syllables, to indicate a light stress somewhat less than a semi-stress (which to my ear sounds about right!).

      Liked by 1 person

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