Sonnet 39

Shakespeare Sonnet 39

OH how thy worth with manners may I ſinge,
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine owne praiſe to mine owne ſelfe bring;
And what is’t but mine owne when I praiſe thee,
Euen for this, let vs deuided liue,
And our deare loue looſe name of ſingle one,
That by this ſeperation I may giue:
That due to thee which thou deſeru’ſt alone:
Oh abſence what a torment wouldſt thou proue,
Were it not thy ſoure leiſure gaue ſweet leaue,
To entertaine the time with thoughts of loue,
VVhich time and thoughts ſo ſweetly doſt deceiue.
And that thou teacheſt how to make one twaine,
By praiſing him here who doth hence remaine.

The loosely linked series of Sonnets 39-42 picks up where Sonnets 33-36 leave off: they are preoccupied with the poet’s absence from the youth, but are now complicated by the presence of a mistress. They are punctuated by a range of biblical and christic echoes, none of which are sufficiently sustained to comprise a subtext.

Principal among the sets of allusions is the passage from Matthew in which Christ talks about separation and union and the “twaine” becoming one.

For this cause, shall a man leaue father and mother, and shall be knit to his wyfe: and they twayne shall be one fleshe. Wherfore, they are no more twayne, but one fleshe. Let not man therefore put a sunder, that which God hath coupled together. (19.5-8 passim; BB)

Echoes of the passage are evident in the vocabulary of oneness and separation in Sonnet 39.13, “thou teachest how to make one twaine,” in the opening confession to Sonnet 36, “Let me confesse that we two must be twaine, / Although our vndeuided loues are one,” and in Sonnet 42.11-12, “And loosing her / Both finde each other, and I loose both twaine, / And both for my sake lay on me this crosse.” The locus biblicus of a cross imposed lies not so much with Christ as with Simon of Cyrene: “on hymn layde they the crosse, that he might beare it after Iesus” (Luke 23.26; BB). It occurred as women “bewayled . . him” (Sonnet 36.10, “bewailed guilt,” Sonnet 42.3, “wayling”). In forgiving the good thief (Sonnet 40.9, “I doe forgiue thy robb’rie gentle theefe”), the poet emulates Christ’s forgiving the good thief on the cross: “Father forgiue them, for they wote not what they do” (Luke 23.34; BB). The element of inculpable ignorance becomes an alleviating factor in the sonnets. Finally any acceptance of the cross is in imitation of Christ: “And a mans foes [shalbe] they of his owne householde. . . And he that taketh not his crosse, & foloweth me, is not worthy of me . . He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that loseth his lyfe, for my sake, shall fynde it” (Matt. 10.36-39; BB). The poet’s desire is that “we must not be foes” (Sonnet 40.4), while ‘that which was lost is found,’ is the paradox of Sonnet 42, which is marked by the triple plea, “for my sake.”

In opening Sonnet 39 with the question, “O how thy worth with manners may I sing,” Shakespeare (as he does also in Sonnet 85.1, “in manners holds her still”) evokes the classical trope of a ‘mannered poem,’ Cicero’s ‘poema moratum,’ a poem fitted to the character of a person or situation. 1 Its locus classicus was the Ars Poetica, where Horace claims that ‘a correctly mannered tale (“morata recte”), of no grace/lasciviousness (“nullius veneris”) and without weight or art, better pleases the people and remains with them longer than the poor verses of trifling words or songs.’ 2 Horace’s “fabula nullius veneris” created difficulty for translators because “venus” could mean both grace or elegance and venery or lasciviousness. Ben Jonson translated the phrase as “of no grace,” while the standard Tudor translation of Thomas Drant rendered it as “lasciuiousnes away.” Shakespeare conflates the two in the following sonnet’s “Lasciuious grace.” 3

The sonnet asks how the poet might “with manners . . sing,” how his song might be appropriate to the subject and situation and more than Horace’s ‘trifling words’ (“rerum nugae”). The question is posed because, since the youth is “the better part of me,” the poet in praising the youth would merely be praising himself: an unmannered poem and poor verse (“uersus inopes”). The phase, “the better part of me,” reproduces the trope of poetic immortality, the final passage of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Golding’s rendition, “Yit shall the better part of mee assured bee to clyme / Aloft above the starrye skye.” 4 Ovid’s “better part” is his spirit that will prevail beyond death and earn immortality. Here the poet intimates that the young man, as his “better part,” will prevail immortally.

If the poet, in praising the youth, were merely praising part of himself, then it raises the question, “What can mine owne praise to mine owne selfe bring”? Clearly nothing. Praising the youth is a praising of the self: “And what is’t, but mine owne when I praise thee”? Because of this (“Euen for this”), because being identified prevents praise, it is better that the two be separated (“let vs deuided liue”). Only then the poet can resolve that their precious love (“deare loue”) should forgo the “name” or ‘title’ of undivided oneness (“single one”). Only with their “seperation” can he render the friend the “due,” which is owed solely to him (“which thou deseru’st alone”).

The sestet argues against the conventional conceit that absence is a “torment,” because the “leisure” absence gives, normally a source of bitterness (“soure”), has granted “sweet leaue” or ‘permission’ to idle away the time (“To entertaine the time”) with “thoughts of loue.” Thus absence “sweetly dost deceiue” or ‘beguiles’ time and thoughts. The couplet returns to the earlier argument: “absence” would be a torment, “Were it not” that absence teaches how to make two of one (“And that thou [absence] teachest how to make one twaine”), because, with the young man distant from the poet, praise becomes possible (“By praising him here who doth hence remaine”) and the poet’s work can be properly charactered and be sung “with manners.”


39.1. Cicero, Divinatio in Caecilium 1.31.66.

39.2. Horace, Ars Poetica 319-22, “morataque recte fabula nullius veneris, sine pondere et arte, valdius oblectat populum meliusque moratur quam uersus inopes rerum nugaeque canorae.”

39.3. Horace, Q. Horatius Flaccus: His Art of Poetry. Englished by Ben: Jonson. With other Workes of the Author, never Printed before (London: J. Okes, 1640) 19, 456-60; Jonson’s full translation runs: “A Poëm, of no grace, waight, art in Rimes / With specious places, and being humour’d right, / More strongly takes the people with delight, / And better stayes them there than all fine noyse / Of empty Verses, and meere tinckling toyes.” Horace, Drant B2v.

39.4. Golding 15.989-90; Ovid, Met. 15.875-6, “parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis / astra ferar.”