Friday, June 26, 2015

Ovid's Narcissus and Shakespeare's "Procreation Sonnets"

Shakespeare's famous "Procreation Sonnets"[1] (Sonnets 1-17) are poems addressed to a beautiful young man whom the speaker tries to convince to have children so that he may bequeath his beauty to the world. This is general consensus among interpreters of Shakespeare's sonnets; hence the epithet those first seventeen sonnets have been given. But it seems to me that those poems are not just about procreation, that there is more to the speaker's exhortations. There is a very striking parallel between the young man and the Narcissus from Ovid's Metamorphoses[2], one which seems unlikely to be accidental, given Shakespeare's several references to Ovid and the Metamorphoses in his plays and other poems and sonnets; nevertheless, to my knowledge, this parallel has not yet been carefully examined by critics, although some have in fact mentioned Narcissus in passing in connection to the procreation sonnets and to the young man. Perhaps then a somewhat close analysis of this parallel would be fruitful, as it could allow us to see whether there is indeed more to the sonnets in question.
            Let us start therefore with a recollection of the Narcissus tale from the Metamorphoses, from which we will move on to seek Narcissus in the sonnets. Narcissus is a beautiful young man of sixteen who is desired by men, women, and nymphs, and about whom the prophet Tiresias has said that he should live a long life as long as "himself he does not know." Perhaps because he is desired by many, and perhaps also because of his proud nature, he does not give himself to anyone and has never known love. One day, as he is hunting deer in the woods, he comes upon a beautiful meadow and a pristine water spring, untouched both by man and beast. When he lies down near the edge of the water so as to drink and quench his thirst, there on the water he sees his reflection for the first time and falls ardently in love with his own image, believing it to be a different person. He stares intently at it, and it stares back at him; he then tries to hug and kiss and touch the object of his love, but whenever he touches the spring, the resulting ripples in the water disturb the image. So he is confined to contemplating the object of his passion without ever having his desire for it satisfied, until at length he realizes that the object is himself. Desolate, yet unable to give up his love and go back to where he came, he withers away and dies, and his corpse is transformed into a flowerthe daffodil or narcissus.
            Now, where can we see Narcissus in the procreation sonnets, or when is the young man ever identified with him? There are no explicit references to Ovid's character in the poems. However, his presence is there from the very beginning. Sonnet 1, which, as Helen Vendler has said[3], serves as a preface to the rest of this subsequence because it introduces the theme and most of its imagery and metaphors, gives us very clear indications about the parallel between the young man and Narcissus. In line 5, for instance, the young man is "contracted to his own bright eyes." This is the first characterization the speaker offers us of the youth, and it is cunninglyand superficiallyambiguous. The young man is either confined to looking  exclusively into his own eyes or he is betrothed to his own eyes, that is, he has a marriage contract with himself. In both cases, the images imply that the young man only has eyes for himself, that he only loves himself, and that is why I said that the word contracted here is only superficially ambiguous. Is it not telling that the young man is first described as being narcissistic?
            Moreover, in line 6, he is "feeding his light's flame with self-substantial fuel." The obvious image here is that of a candle, which feeds its flame with its own waxen body, with its own substance. But it is also a parallel with Narcissus, as in lines 584-585 of Golding's translation of the Metamorphoseswhich is the translation that plausibly Shakespeare would have readNarcissus, after having realized that the image on the water is his image, says to himself: "I do both set on fire, / And am the same that swelters too." He is then, at the same time, the cause of the fire and the thing that burns. He is like a candle; the young man is like both. And the parallels continue in sonnet 1. In line 12, introducing the finance imagery that will appear in the following sonnets in the subsequence, the speaker states that the young man is a "tender churl" who "makes waste in niggarding." Curiously enough, Narcissus employs a similar image to describe himself in line 587 of Ovid's poem: "my plenties make me poor." Not only does Shakespeare also use finance metaphor to talk about the young man, but he does so in a similarly paradoxical way, in which riches make for poverty, thriftiness for waste. These are, I believe, direct references to Narcissus in that they use virtually the same language Ovid used to describe his character.
            But there are also indirect allusions to Narcissus in this and in the other procreation sonnets. The young man is also described in sonnet 1 as his own foe, too cruel to his own sweet self, which means that the speaker regards the youth's narcissistic love for himself as morally wrong, just as he would regard Narcissus' love for himself as morally wrong. That the speaker considers this love to be wrong is evident also from the prophesying couplet that closes the sonnet. In sonnet 3, the youth's love and its consequence will make him "be the tomb of his self-love," just as Narcissus was the tomb of his own self-love. And in this same sonnet dying single entails the death of the young man's own image, that thing which, like Narcissus, he loved the most, because it was the one thing that allowed him to see himself as someone elseand, therefore, a legitimate object of love. And the parallels go on; in sonnet 6, the youth is told to "treasure … some place with beauty's treasure, ere it be self-killed;" in sonnet 7; he will die "unlooked on," unless he gets a son; in sonnet 11, if all the men were like himthat is, loved like him, the world would end in sixty years, which reinforces the reprobate character of this love. Many other points of contact between Narcissus and the youth could be indicated, but I believe their identification is now sufficiently clear so as to allow us to move on with our argument.
            We see here that indeed procreation is what the young man should engage in according to the speaker, but these sonnets are not simply about procreation. It is not an end itself, of course; it is a means of perpetuating Nature's gift to the young man. This is quite evident. But perhaps we do not fully appreciate what this means. We have been asked by the speaker to imagine a young man so beautiful that his beauty must be passed on, because the absence of his beauty from this world would be a crime against Nature. Furthermore, in sonnet 14, the perpetuation of his beauty is not only good, but also truth. "Beauty is truth; truth, beauty," as Keats has said; and, in this case, it is also good. Procreation then is the solution to the youth's moral problem: by loving only himself, he is cheating the world of his beauty, exactly like Narcissus. This is what I meant when I said before that there seemed to be more to the procreation sonnets than only procreation. These sonnets are not really about procreation, they are about beautya beauty so extreme that it imposes itself as a duty upon the one who has it "in lease."
            The rejection of this duty is the reason, I think, for Narcissus' death. Only after he consciously found out that he was the object of his own love did he begin to wither away, because, with his love for himself, he had abandoned his duty and therefore his purpose, just as the young man would abandon his if he could not love others and procreatetherefore, being single, proving none (sonnet 8). Maybe we would logically expect the speaker in sonnet 8 to say "proving one," although that would be a tautology and very likely a terrible ending to the sonnet. The fact that he does not means that, for the young man, overlooking his duty would make him a nothing; thus, in a sense, dead. That seems to be one of the reasons why the speaker is so keen on convincing the youth to procreate.
            In the end, however, we discover that the speaker was not entirely correct in his first judgment of the situation. Narcissus' beauty was not completely extinguished upon his death; it was actually transfigured, originating a new being that bears his original beauty. Narcissus did, in a sense, procreate, and his beauty did to some extent live on. Perhaps Nature's power transcends the speaker's imagination, or perhaps it is the power of Narcissus' beauty that does so. The same is true for the young man, even though his beauty survived him under a different form. And this is where we come upon another striking parallel between Narcissus and the youth. Let us consider for a moment that Narcissus gave place to a flower; next, let us look at the imagery taken from agriculture that is present throughout the subsequence, but especially in sonnets 15 and 16. In sonnet 15, the speaker "engrafts" the young man "new" with his verse; in sonnet 16, "many maiden gardens" would bear the young man's "living flowers." In these sonnets the speaker ponders on his verse as a potential new form of life for the young man's beauty, comparing the youth's issue to living flowers and his own poetry to a botanical technique, but still believes actual procreation to be the best solution to his addressee's problem, and so he presses on with his attempt to convince the young man to engage in it. And in sonnet 17, which is regarded as the last sonnet in the subsequence, he envisages both solutions as viable, so long as they go together: his verse would be merely complementary to actual procreation.
            Here we come to another important point in my argument. Sonnet 18, notwithstanding the fact that it does not directly say anything about procreation, should in my opinion be included among the procreation sonnets. After trying to persuade the young man to "increase" for seventeen sonnets, the speaker finally gives up. He realizes that the youth's self-love is, like Narcissus', probably past hope of redress, and that, nevertheless, his beauty will live on because of the speaker's own verse. He returns for the last time to a botanical image, stating that the youth will grow in eternal lines to time, as a plant that has been engrafted grows according to its "host." The speaker thereby identifies the young man to Narcissus once againhis beauty will survive, like Narcissus', as a plant, although a metaphorical one. In this case, however, the perpetuation of beauty is not natural or spontaneous, but artificial, carried out by art and technique, so that the young man's plant needs to be engraftedhis beauty must be put in "numbers" (sonnet 17).
            Then, as I had said, the speaker's first judgment was partially incorrect: the youth's beauty will last, only in a different form. In the end, both Narcissus and the young manand their beautylived on; through the flower, in the first case, and through the speaker's sonnets, in the second. Their beauty was so astounding and so powerful that, even though they consumed themselves in self-love, Nature and art found a way to correct their fault and perpetuate their beauty. This is perhaps, if I may say so, a sort of "dramatic" irony in the procreation sonnets, or perhaps the speaker was fully aware of what was going on. The poet certainly seems to have been, as I believe to have demonstrated. Be that as it may, the comparison between the young man in Shakespeare's sonnets and Ovid's Narcissus has been very fruitful indeed, and it has allowed me to better understand, as I think, the theme and argument of the procreation sonnets. I do not know, however, how this reading would hold up if the whole sonnet sequence was to be taken into consideration−finding that out would require a much more careful and lengthy examination. But the cycle of the procreation sonnets is probably where the parallel between Narcissus and the young man is most significant, seeing as, having found at last a solution to the youth's moral problem in sonnet 18, the speaker will move on to different themes, different images, and different language.


Booth, Stephen (ed.). Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Lavelle, Louis. O Erro de Narciso. São Paulo: É Realizações, 2012.
Rouse, W. H. D. (ed.). Shakespeare's Ovid: Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the Metamorphoses. London: De La More Press, 1904.
Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
West, David (ed.). Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: Duckworth, 2007.

[1] Booth, Stephen (ed.). Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
[2] Rouse, W. H. D. (ed.). Shakespeare's Ovid: Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the Metamorphoses. London: De La More Press, 1904.
[3] Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.