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.
While primarily known to be an Elizabethan Dramatist, Shakespeare is also widely-known for his sonnets. Here, both of Shakespeare’s sonnets fit the typical requirements for a sonnet. Each has fourteen lines, is written in iambic pentameter, include rhyme, and have “love” as a theme. Sonnet #44 describes the speaker’s efforts to make his love understand the lengths to which he would go to always be with her. He is sad while she is away and tries to convince her that he would make every effort to be with her “where thou dost stay”. He explains that while there may be things that prevent him from being with her physically, he would still be with her even in mind and spirit. While the first eight lines attempt to convince her of his devotion, line nine reveals his knowledge or realization that she doubts his commitment to her when he says, “…though kills me that I am not thought, To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone…”. He is honestly bothered that she should doubt his intentions. He further explains that he cries while she is away and suffers because he is at time’s mercy. Aesthetically, the poem appeals to the reader’s emotions and knowing what it feels like to love another and not be able to be with them all of the time. Each of us, at some point, have experienced something akin to what the speaker feels in this sonnet. It is often difficult enough to be separated from our love, let alone know that they somehow doubt your level of commitment while you are apart. The speaker struggles emotionally in her absence and cannot wait until he can see her again.
Sonnet #45 similarly deals with the theme of love’s interpretation and explanation. Again, the speaker is attempting to convince his love that he thinks of her “wherever I abide”, and he goes on to compare his feelings to the elements of nature. His thoughts are “slight air” and his desire for her is “purging fire”. He goes on to explain that when these elements are not there, he is “oppress’d with melancholy”; he is sad. Toward the end of the sonnet there could be one of two scenarios occurring. One scenario is that his love has become ill somehow and he is awaiting word of the status of her health. When he is “assured of [her] fair health”, he is happy, but not for long as he returns to sadness when the messengers leave and he is left lonely once again to long for his lover’s presence. A second scenario is that he will be unhappy until he knows that she reciprocates his thoughts and desires. When the speaker states, “My life, being made of four, with two alone/Sinks down to death, oppress’d with melancholy,” he means that only having her thoughts and desires is not satisfying enough for him, and it therefore makes him sad. While the other two natural elements of water and earth are not mentioned in the sonnet, one may interpret their lack of mention as being representative of either her lack of physical presence or her lack of good health.
Aesthetically, both sonnets accomplish their goal of being pleasing to the reader in that they fit the expected pattern and rules for a sonnet; their artistic value is thus validated. The sonnets both deal with similar themes and have similar motives. Most readers of these poems can easily relate to the feelings and emotions expressed by the speaker in each. The theme of love is universal, and many people know first-hand how both equally painful and wonderful love can be. Shakespeare captures in both sonnets the longing of one who is away from their love for any period of time and the sense of wanting to move heaven and earth to be reunited. Yes, even while apart, the sense of longing does not diminish, and if one’s love and commitment were called into question in that distance, many would feel just as the speaker in Sonnet #44 felt. Both of these poems are timeless examples of the trials and tribulations of love.”