Read the following poems by William Shakespeare and write an essay about the poems in which you address the following questions.
How does the poem work? How would you explicate its meaning? What does the poem accomplish aesthetically, intellectually, and/or philosophically?
If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,
Injurious distance should not stop my way;
For then despite of space I would be brought,
From limits far remote, where thou dost stay.
No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth remov’d from thee;
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land,
As soon as think the place where he would be.
But, ah! thought kills me that I am not thought,
To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone,
But that so much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan;
Receiving nought by elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.
The other two, slight air, and purging fire
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.
For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppress’d with melancholy;
Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers return’d from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:
This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again, and straight grow sad.
Between Sonnets 44 and 45, by William Shakespeare, the traditional four elements are each shown separating from yet connecting the speaker to the person whom he (or she) loves. The slower elements of water and earth are paired in Sonnet 44, and the same is done for the swifter elements of fire and air in Sonnet 45. While the latter pair send and bring joy, both sonnets end in melancholy for the speaker, who remains separated from the beloved. Together the Sonnets employ a historic code of the Renaissance, the four elements, to develop a theme running through many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, that of a speaker separated by distance, events or the limits of flesh from the person whom he or she loves.
The first quatrain of Sonnet 44 only indirectly introduces land and water; rather, it wishes that the speaker’s body were as thought, that travels to the beloved. We learn that the beloved is at a remote distance. “[S]ea and land” are introduced explicitly in the second quatrain, where we learn that the beloved is male, and that the speaker is confident that “As soon as think the place where he would be” the speaker’s thoughts are nimble enough to leap the distance created by sea and land. The mood shifts abruptly in the third quatrain, which opens with the moan “But, ah!” and closes with a reference to “my moan…” The speaker moans because thoughts do not suffice for leaping over land and sea. There is only distance and “time’s leisure” — meaning the length of time and not relaxation. In the closing couplet the elements of land and sea (earth and water) are called slow, which works in two ways. By their mass they slow the speaker from reaching the beloved, and they do not move the speaker. The faculty of “thought,” initially portrayed as a traveler and a synechdote for the whole speaker (l. 1), turns around and “kills me that I am not thought” (l. 9), not thought by the beloved perhaps, to travel.
The opening reference to “The other two,” which are “slight air, and purging fire” signals that Sonnet 45 is not intended to stand alone. It relies upon the code, anatomy and conceit of the four elements and in turn expands upon the use of the elements in Sonnet 44, where land and sea surround and impede the speaker. In the first quatrain the speaker conceives that air, representing the speaker’s thought, and fire, representing his or her desire, are with the beloved. However, they are not with the beloved in the sense that land and sea surroung or impede the speaker; rather, the two lighter yet more intensive elements are metaphors for locating the speakers thoughts and feelings with the beloved. More passion may be expressed in Sonnet 45, but only at the cost of objectifying the beloved, who is merely a receptacle for the speaker’s feelings. (But to be fair to the speaker, love at a distance will do that!) In the second quatrain of Sonnet 45, the two “quicker elements,” having made their embassy to the beloved, are gone from the speaker, who is left with the cumbersome land and sea of Sonnet 44. Lacking half his elemental composition, the speaker “Sinks down to death” — by which the speaker means “oppress’d with melancholy…”
In Sonnet 44, the third quatrain turns toward melancholy. In Sonnet 45, which after all is about the quicker elements, the third quatrain brings elation. The ambassadors, air and fire, have returned as “swift messengers” from the beloved, and assure the speaker of the beloved’s health, if not of the speaker’s health. However, it is the nature of these elements to move swiftly, and their repository at the speaker’s own desire is in the beloved. The elements return to the beloved, and until they presumably return again, the speaker “straight grow[s] sad.” Both Sonnets end with melancholy; however, the melancholy that closes Sonnet 45 will fluctuate, departing and returning. The melancholy that closes Sonnet 44, being made of slow elements that immobilize the speaker, is more lasting.