A summary of Shakespeare’s 45th sonnet
As the opening line of this poem, ‘The other two, slight air and purging fire’, makes clear, Sonnet 45 is very much the companion-piece to Sonnet 44, which had pondered Shakespeare’s separation from the Fair Youth by drawing on two of the four classical elements, earth and water. In Sonnet 45, he turns to ‘the other two’, air and fire:
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, oppressed 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.
In Shakespeare’s time, mainstream scientific belief was that everything was made up of just four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. (Even when such an idea had been roundly debunked by chemists and physicists, poets sometimes stuck to these four: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and his later poem Four Quartets both constitute, in part, meditations on the four Aristotelian elements.) If you didn’t possess all four of these elements, then – much as in humoral theory, if your body had an imbalance of the four humours – you’d be miserable and out of sorts.
So, to paraphrase the meaning of Sonnet 45: ‘The other two elements, air and fire, are both absent from me, as they have flown to you: air represents my thought, and fire my desire, and they are both present and absent: present because I think about you and desire you, but absent because they have flown to be with you. For when air and fire have rushed to be with you, like ambassadors I have dispatched to you, my life – which should properly be made of all four elements – sinks down into death and melancholy, as the two heavy elements (earth and water) are all I’ve properly got, until my life regains its required elemental balance – which will happen when you send my airy thought and fiery desire back to me. As it happens, these two messengers return form you right this minute, assuring me that you are well. Learning this news, I am happy – but am then suddenly dispirited again, and send air and fire back to you, and grow sad again.’
And so the cycle continues: the sonnet depicts a seemingly endless chain of repetition. Shakespeare sends his thoughts and desires to the Fair Youth, and grows sad because his thoughts are with his (absent) lover. But then he is overjoyed to receive news that the Fair Youth is well and still thinking of him (well, he bothered to write, didn’t he?) – but only for a moment. For then he immediately starts to worry again: what if, since writing to the Bard, the Fair Youth has forgotten him or fallen ill, or some such other calamity? Don Paterson, in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, argues that such long-distance romances have been made much easier since the advent of the internet – gone are the days when you have to wait days for a response from the one who fills your thoughts. The whole business may be quicker nowadays, but arguably the essence remains the same, as anyone who’s sat checking their phone every five seconds, waiting for a text message to come through from that special someone, can attest. The latest message soon becomes old news, and you grow sad at the distance between you – and, if in a similar situation to Shakespeare (where he’s not exactly in a conventional ‘relationship’ with the Fair Youth), that extra uncertainty only makes it worse.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 45 useful, you can discover more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets here.