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’st 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.
Shakespeare’s first seventeen sonnets were addressed to an unknown friend who he felt was slow in pledging his troth. This friend appeared to have problems making commitments, aka in modern terms a “commitment-phobe,” and I suspect Shakespeare knew something personally about this malady of the soul.
“But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes/Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel.” Here Shakespeare vividly noted the problem of self-absorption, the narcissistic inability to contemplate that one is focused only on his own needs and wishes, devoid of the capacity to consider the reality of the other person. This brings to my mind the wisdom of Conrad Aiken who observed that often, “we see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which likes the darkness.” And when this happens we deny ourselves the “fuel” that comes from engagement with difference, with “otherness”, opting for the comfort of sameness which will always legitimate our pre-conceptions the result of which is that we are then, “Making a famine where abundance lies, Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.”
Shakespeare knew something about modern object-relations theory, that we have something only when we lose it. Or, to borrow from the lyrics of a Donovan 1960’s tune, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” In this sonnet Shakespeare put it this way, “Within thine own bud buriest thy content/And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding. Shakespeare knew that our heart, “that tender bud from which life arose, that sweet force born of inner throes” (T. S. Eliot) was the source of the Infinite. But he also knew that this infinite treasure was found only with a willingness to “lose” it, to spend it, and that holding on to it in a miserly fashion, i.e. “niggarding” it, would be to waste it. Jesus had this in mind when he told us that we must lose our life in order to find it. And I close with a relevant and poignant observation from Anais Nin had a poignant observation on this matter, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”