Sonnet four belongs to the Fair Youth sequence. It is one of seventeen that addresses themes of having children, immortality, and beauty.
The Fair Youth is the intended listener and the subject of the vast majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets. His identity has never been confirmed nor has the nature of Shakespeare’s personal relationship with this person.
Sonnet 4 William Shakespeare Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend Upon thy self thy beauty's legacy? Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend, And being frank she lends to those are free: Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse The bounteous largess given thee to give? Profitless usurer, why dost thou use So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live? For having traffic with thy self alone, Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive: Then how when nature calls thee to be gone, What acceptable audit canst thou leave? Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee, Which, used, lives th' executor to be.
Explore Sonnet 4: Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
The speaker addresses the Fair Youth in these fourteen lines and chastises him for spending his beauty poorly. The Fair Youth is, in the speaker’s eyes, wasting his life. In this short time he has on the planet he has so far been a bad investor, spending his beauty in the wrong ways. He should, before it’s too late, use his beauty to have a child, and then that child will secure his legacy.
Sonnet 4: ‘Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the “Shakespearean” or English form. It made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
The last two lines of ‘Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend’ are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to change perspective, speaker, or assert an entirely new idea.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend’. These include, but are not limited to, alliteration, enjambment, and personification. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “beauty’s” and “bequest” in lines two and three as well as “beauteous” and “bounteous” in line five and six.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines one and two as well as that between lines five and six.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In the case of ‘Unthrifty loveliness, why doest thou spend’ the technique is used to give “Nature” human characteristics. The force is personified as a woman, someone who is able to give and take away at will.
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And, being frank, she lends to those are free.
In the first quatrain of Sonnet 4 the speaker asks the Fair Youth why is he is living so wastefully. He is passing his days by without doing anything to preserve his legacy. He is spending his beauty upon himself rather than putting it back out into the world. These lines chastise him for his thoughtlessness. They are also used to remind him that “Nature,” as a personified force, does not give things freely. They are only lent for temporary use.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
In the second quatrain, the poet uses the word “niggard” to refer to this person’s miserly instincts. He wants to know why the Fair Youth doesn’t spend his days and his beauty productively. What the speaker wants him to do is not stated explicitly, but when one considers all the possibilities and the fact that this sonnet is right in the middle of a series about procreation, it is clear. The speaker wants the Fair Youth to have a child. This is how his beauty will be best spent.
The speaker uses the metaphor of an investor and profits to depict the Fair Youth’s impulses. He is “profitless” and has done nothing to secure his legacy.
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
In the third and final quatrain of Sonnet 4 the speaker says that because he has only dealt with himself “alone” he has made a mistake. He is cheating himself of something wonderful, the ability to prolong one’s impact on the earth past one’s peak of beauty and then death.
Lines three and four asks the Fair Youth what he’s going to have to show for himself when his death does meet him. What “acceptable audit” will be left on the earth?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which, used, lives th’ executor to be.
The final two lines of Sonnet 4 tell the Fair Youth definitively that his beauty is going to go to waste. His beauty will be buried with him if he has no children to inherit it. But, if he takes the speaker’s good advice then he will have something left of himself on earth.