Sonnet 44

Shakespeare Sonnet 44

IF the dull ſubstance of my fleſh were thought,
Iniurious diſtance ſhould not ſtop my way,
For then diſpight of ſpace I would be brought,
From limits farre remote, where thou dooſt ſtay,
No matter then although my foote did ſtand
Vpon the fartheſt earth remoou’d from thee,
For nimble thought can iumpe both ſea and land,
As ſoone as thinke the place where he would be.
But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought
To leape large lengths of miles when thou art gone,
But that ſo much of earth and water wrought,
I muſt attend, times leaſure with my mone.
Receiuing naughts by elements ſo ſloe,
But heauie teares, badges of eithers woe.

Sonnets 44 and 45 constitute a pair, as do Sonnets 50 and 51, all four being concerned with travel and absence. Commentators point to the similarity in thought and vocabulary with a passage in Henry V (3.7.11-19), in which the Dauphin commends his horse which “is pure Ayre and Fire; and the dull Elements of Earth and Water neuer appeare in him, but only in patient stillnesse while his Rider mounts him: hee is indeede a Horse, and all other Iades you may call Beasts.” To this should be added the passage about humours in Julius Caesar, 1.2. 260-7:

Is Brutus sicke? And is it Physicall
To walke vnbraced, and sucke vp the humours
Of the danke Morning? What, is Brutus sicke?
And will he steale out of his wholsome bed
To dare the vile contagion of the Night?
And tempt the Rhewmy, and vnpurged Ayre,
To adde vnto his sicknesse.

More pertinent is the debt which Sonnets 44 and 45 owe to the Pythagorean section of the final book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which treats of the elements. Shakespeare, as is customary, makes extensive use of Ovid’s original with only passing reference to Golding’s translation. Ovid in the passage describes the cyclic process of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire, as they are transmuted from one to the next and then changed back again in reverse order:

The things, which we call elements (“elementa”), do not endure. Pay attention: I will teach you the changes they undergo. The eternal world contains four generative substances (“corpora”). Two of these, earth and water, are heavy and are carried downwards under their own weight. The other two, air and fire which is purer than air, lack gravity and with nought pressing them down (“nullo premente”) strive for height. Although each is distant from the other in space (“spatio distent”), nevertheless everything is made from these four (“omnia fiunt ex ipsis”) and everything sinks down into them (“cadunt in ipsa”). The earth when softened is absorbed into flowing waters; moisture (“umor”), made slight (“tenuatus”), departs (“abit”) into winds and air; air also, purged of its weight (“pondere dempto”), at its slightest (“tenuissimus”), in the highest regions breaks out as fire. From there they return (“redeunt”) back and the same order recurs (“retexitur”). For fire, condensed, changes into denser air, air into water, and the watery wave, made thick, is rendered into earth. 1

In Sonnets 44 and 45 Shakespeare observes Ovid’s elemental distinctions and models the to and fro of his thoughts and desires on the movement of the elements from earth to fire and their return, being prompted to associate the four elements with the four humours by the accepted pun on Ovid’s “umor,” in classical Latin ‘moisture’ or ‘water,’ but in medieval and Renaissance physiology, a ‘humour,’ a pun also evident Julius Caesar.

The “dull substance of my flesh,” with which Sonnet 44 opens, is a substance that is not quick or enlivened and is reluctant to move: the flesh is identified later as “earth and water;” “dull” means ‘weighed down’ as earth and water are, but it was associated with travel and horses, a horse being ‘dull’ or ‘resty,’ if it was impervious to the spur and slow (compare the “dull bearer” of Sonnet 51, who in Sonnet 50 “Plods duly on,” and whom the “bloody spurre cannot prouoke”). If the “the dull substance” of the poet’s flesh were incorporeal “thought,” then the “distance” of space that separates him from the friend (Ovid’s “spatio distent”) and which is the source of his pain (“Iniurious”), could not prevent his passage back to the friend (“should not stop my way”). The poet would be able to transcend space (“dispight of space”) and be transported (“brought”) from the furtherest reaches or corners of the earth (“From limits farre remote”) to dwell with the friend (“where thou doost stay”). Then it would not matter where he put down his foot, even as an antipode standing at the place most removed from the friend (“the farthest earth remoou’d from thee”), because “nimble thought can iumpe both sea and land,” both heavier elements. The qualifier “nimble” suggests light-footed and, unlike a dull horse, agile in the “iumpe.” (Florio has under ‘agile,’ “easie, nimble, light.”) As soon as the poet thinks where the beloved is, his thought vaults the space between them.

At least that is the way it might be, but the flesh isn’t thought: “But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought.” The thought that destroys him is that he is not composed of thought and thus unable to “leape large lengths of miles,” when separated from the beloved (“when thou art gone”). He is so composed of heavier elements (“so much of earth and water wrought”), that he must mournfully wait on (“attend . . with my mone”) the pleasure or convenience of time (“times leasure”) for the separation to be overcome. Earth and water are “elements so sloe,” sluggish and unlike air and fire which have in Ovid’s words, ‘nought pressing them down.’ They afford the poet no return (“Receiuing naughts”) other than “heauie teares,” of a heavy heart, the heavy element of water, and the heavy humour identified in Sonnet 45 as “melancholie” which is traditionally “dull.” They are “badges of eithers woe,” of the poet and the beloved. The image of tears as badges of noughts or nothings is apparent also in Donne’s “A Valediction of weeping,” where the lovers, separated by the sea, are a nothing, “So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.” 2 Their “teares” are “emblemes” of that nothing.


44.1. Ovid, Met. 15.237-51:

Haec quoque non perstant, quae nos elementa vocamus,
quasque vices peragant, animos adhibete: docebo.
quattuor aeternus genitalia corpora mundus
continet; ex illis duo sunt onerosa suoque
pondere in inferius, tellus atque unda, feruntur,
et totidem gravitate carent nulloque premente
alta petunt, aer atque aere purior ignis.
quae quamquam spatio distent, tamen omnia fiunt
ex ipsis et in ipsa cadunt: resolutaque tellus
in liquidas rarescit aquas, tenuatus in auras
aeraque umor abit, dempto quoque pondere rursus
in superos aer tenuissimus emicat ignes;
inde retro redeunt, idemque retexitur ordo.
ignis enim densum spissatus in aera transit,
hic in aquas, tellus glomerata cogitur unda.

Compare Golding 15.263-76:

This endlesse world conteynes therin I say
Fowre substances of which all things are gendred. Of theis fower
The Earth and Water for theyr masse and weyght are sunken lower.
The other cowple Aire and Fyre, the purer of the twayne,
Mount up, and nought can keepe them downe. And though there doo remayne
A space betweene eche one of them: yit every thing is made
Of them same fowre, and into them at length ageine doo fade.
The earth resolving leysurely dooth melt to water sheere.
The water fyned turnes to aire. The aire eeke purged cleere
From grossenesse, spyreth up aloft, and there becommeth fyre.
From thence in order contrary they backe ageine retyre.
Fyre thickening passeth into Aire, and Ayer wexing grosse,
Returnes to water: Water eeke congealing into drosse,
Becommeth earth.

44.2. Donne, Poems 228.