A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 44: ‘If the dull substance of my flesh were thought’

A summary of Shakespeare’s 44th sonnet

‘If the dull substance of my flesh were thought, / Injurious distance should not stop my way’: yes, sonnet 44 in Shakespeare’s Sonnets is another poem about the long-distance love Shakespeare bears the Fair Youth. This sonnet generally requires less critical analysis than most of the Sonnets, but nevertheless a few words of summary and explication help to show how Shakespeare’s poem uses the scientific ideas of his age to highlight the plight of the long-distance lover.

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 removed 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.

Sonnet 44 is the first of a two-parter: what we might call the ‘elemental sonnets’. In the next sonnet, it’s the turn of air and fire; in this one, earth and water. Between them, they cover the four classical ‘Aristotelian’ elements.

A quick paraphrase of Sonnet 44, before we come to the analysis: ‘If my flesh were like my thoughts, then being far away from you wouldn’t be a problem: for then I’d be able to bring myself to where you are, despite the distance between us. Then it wouldn’t matter at all if I were on the other side of the world than you, because our thoughts can jump the space between sea and land in an instant – all you have to do is think yourself there. But thinking about this kills me, because my body is not like thought, and I cannot leap the many miles between us while you’re away. So, because there is so much land and sea between us, I must pass my time lamenting the fact that you’re not here with me; and receive nothing from either of these “slow” elements, water and earth, except these heavy tears which fall from my eyes, a symbol of the misery earth and water have brought about by separating us.’

In Shakespeare’s time, earth and water were considered the ‘slow’ or ‘heavy’ elements, with air and fire being the lighter ones. Shakespeare plays upon the idea of ‘heavy’, it seems, in that last line: the tears that fall from his eyes are ‘heavy’ because his misery weighs heavily on him, but such an observation is also backed up by the ‘science’ of the day. And it’s a neat conceit, given that earth and water represent land and sea, i.e. the distance between Shakespeare and the Fair Youth, in this sonnet.

‘Thought’ is very much the word of Sonnet 44, just as ‘love’ had been the word of Sonnet 40. It’s there concluding the opening line, ‘If the dull substance of my flesh were thought’, of course, but it features four times in total, and finds itself multiplying elsewhere, in surprising and most probably wholly aleatory ways: in the rhymes of ‘brought’ and ‘wrought’, of course, but also in the internal rhyme present in ‘nought’, and even glimpsed in the everyday ‘thou art’ of line 10 (which comes hot on the heels of the two mentions of ‘thought’ in the previous line).

If you found this summary and analysis of Sonnet 44 useful, you can learn more about the Sonnets here.

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