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Procreation Sonnets: Characteristics & Overview

Instructor: Angela Gentry
Shakespearean Sonnets #1-17 advise a young man to marry and father children, thus securing his own permanence. Learn more about this unique collection through a discussion of characteristics, then test your new expertise with a quiz.

A Call to Procreate

Since literature often serves as a caricature of life, one of the primary themes writers center on is coming-of- age. Growing from an infant to an independent adult, deciding whether to engage in a committed relationship, having children, and death are a few of the hallmark experiences that human beings share. Most individuals, at some point in their lifetime, face the decision of whether or not to bear offspring.

The Procreation Sonnets, the first 17 sonnets of Shakespeare's 154, encourage a young man, because of his unusual and striking beauty, to marry and father children. The speaker is convinced that the young man, whose actual historical identity is unknown, will be preserved through death with the beauty of his children. Many think of the Shakespearean sonnets as love poems, but this short collection defies the stereotype and focuses instead on the brevity of life and the life-regenerating potential within us all.

Characteristics

While the imagery in this set of sonnets is rich and diverse, there are a number of characteristics we can observe that serve as unifying threads between them. Some literary critics even argue that a narrative or story is present in the set. Let's take a look at these primary features:

Impermanence

From the onset of Sonnet #1, one of the primary characteristics of the Procreation Sonnets is the theme of impermanence, that which is temporary or not lasting. One of the tragedies of the human condition is that we're dying a little more every day, and the speaker of these sonnets finds that reality particularly devastating because of the physical beauty of the subject.

As a remedy for impermanence, the speaker exhorts the young man to replicate his beauty in his progeny:

'Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another...'

- Sonnet #3

Selfishness

The speaker in the Procreation Sonnets infers that the young man's refusal to have children is actually a manifestation of selfishness:

'Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
To be death's conquest and make worms thine heir.'

- Sonnet #6

The speaker thinks so highly of the young man's beauty that he claims the world would wail and mourn if the young man did not offer his seed. We see this in Sonnet #9:

'Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye,
That thou consum'st thy self in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children's eyes, her husband's shape in mind...'

A normal man could console his widow after his death if she saw his shape in their 'children's eyes,' but this young man apparently has the power to console the whole world by giving it the gift of his offspring. There is no allusion to the type of woman the speaker would like for the young man to choose as his partner in that endeavor, which brings us to our next characteristic.

Homoeroticism

Because of the speaker's obvious lauding of the young man, many readers have questioned the homoerotic tones in some of Shakespeare's sonnets. There is much debate over Shakespeare's possible bisexuality, but this theory presents several issues in that we cannot necessarily assume the poet and the speaker in the sonnets are one and the same. Another conflict is that the speaker obviously exhorts the man to marry a woman and father children through the only biologically possible method at the time. One could argue, though, that this is only further evidence of the speaker's love for the object of the sonnets.

Writing as Love

Toward the end of the Procreation Sonnets, after the speaker has reflected on time's passage, the importance of children, and the brevity of life, the speaker finds another way to immortalize the object of his affection:

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