The meaning of Shakespeare’s 39th sonnet
‘O how thy worth with manners may I sing, / When thou art all the better part of me?’ Another exercise in flattery, this, from the Bard: in Sonnet 39 he praises the Fair Youth for being … himself. Or rather, he says that he and the Youth are so close that it feels as if they are one and the same person. These ones and twains require a bit of unpicking and closer analysis – but first, here’s the sonnet.
O how thy worth with manners may I sing,
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine own praise to mine own self bring?
And what is’t but mine own when I praise thee?
Even for this, let us divided live,
And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deserv’st alone.
O absence! what a torment wouldst thou prove,
Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave,
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
Which time and thoughts so sweetly doth deceive,
And that thou teachest how to make one twain,
By praising him here who doth hence remain.
First, a summary of the content of Sonnet 39, in the form of a paraphrase of the poem: ‘How can I, in good conscience, praise your worth, when you and I are fundamentally the same? When I praise you, I praise myself, in a way, because you and I are the same. For this reason, perhaps it’s best for us to be apart – for then I can justify writing poems in praise of you, as we are no longer one and the same. Absence from each other would be unbearable, except for the fact that being apart from you gives me permission to think loving thoughts of you. And you, absence, teach me how to make one person a pair of lovers, by praising the one who remains far away from me.’
Sonnet 39 is typically analysed as a sort of reply, or complement, to Sonnet 36, in which Shakespeare had essentially argued, ‘I think we should call it quits between us: I feel guilty and you’re better off not being associated with me, lest that my shame become attached to you. You shouldn’t acknowledge me in public either, because your good name might be tarnished or dishonoured by the association with me. But since we are one and the same in essence, your good name and good report is mine too (hence why I want to help you protect your reputation, since it benefits me too).’
But now things have mellowed a bit. Or, indeed, if we pay lip service to the analysis of that earlier sonnet which sees it as a ventriloquising of the Fair Youth’s feelings, we might interpret Sonnet 39 as Shakespeare’s response to his young lover’s call for them to shake hands and part their ways. For Shakespeare only wants to be kept away from the Fair Youth so that he might pass the day by thinking sweet thoughts of his beloved (something it’d be more difficult to do, ironically, if the Fair Youth were with him: absence makes the heart grow fonder, we suppose, though it’s also true that if you possess somebody and are in their company, you’re less likely to think about them – you’d be more likely to be doing other things).
Yet it’s not quite clear what we should make of the penultimate line of the poem, in that concluding couplet. Ostensibly, Shakespeare means that absence teaches us how to make one person two, or a pair – ‘twain’ – because we have to imagine the other (absent) person as being ‘here’ with us. (At least that’s how we read the line.) But ‘twain’ is a tricky word, suggesting separation and division as it does – the very division that the line is trying to surmount or reconcile. Like the word ‘cleave’, which can mean both ‘stick to’ and ‘cut apart’, the word ‘twain’ here seems to hover unstably between meaning ‘togetherness’ and ‘separation’, i.e. a reminder that a pair is actually made up of two people and are not, in fact, one whole.
If you enjoyed this analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 39, you can continue to explore the Sonnets here.