THe other two, ſlight ayre, and purging fire,
Are both with thee, where euer 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 Embaſſie of loue to thee,
My life being made of foure, with two alone,
Sinkes downe to death, oppreſt with melancholie.
Vntill liues compoſition be recured,
By thoſe ſwift meſſengers return’d from thee,
Who euen but now come back againe aſſured,
Of their faire health, recounting it to me.
This told, I ioy, but then no longer glad,
I ſend them back againe and ſtraight grow ſad.
Sonnet 45 is the second of two sonnets; its movement from poet to beloved and back mimics the forward and return mutations of Ovid’s four elements (see Sonnet 44 for more detail). It contains a further subtext, that of a letter sent, “In tender Embassie,” with other epistolary echoes in, “This present,” “composition,” “messengers” and finally “assured” (‘yours assured . .’ was a common closing in 16th and 17th century letters). 1
Shakespeare opens with the two lighter elements, “slight ayre” and “purging fire;” “slight” (Ovid’s “tenuatus”), because air lacks weight; “purging” (Ovid’s “dempto;” in Golding, “purged”), because fire, while aspiring, also refines. Wherever the poet finds himself (“where euer I abide”), his “thought,” now identified with “ayre,” and his “desire,” now identified with “fire,” dwell with the beloved. Both move easily and quickly (“with swift motion slide”) between absence and presence, back and forth in time and space (“present absent;” compare Sidney, Astrophil and Stella, 60.13, where Astrophil is so “dull” that his “presence absence, absence presence is”). There is also in, “These present,” an echo of ‘these writings at present in hand.’
When air and fire, these “quicker Elements,” more speedy and more vital, have departed (“are gone;” Ovid’s “abit”) and been sent in “tender Embassie,” as a delegation carrying a message of “loue” to the friend, then the poet’s life, normally composed of four elements (“being made of foure;” Ovid’s “fiunt ex ipsis”), is reduced to the duller and heavier two, earth and water. Then his life “sinkes downe to death” (Ovid’s “cadunt;” compare Golding, “Earth and Water for theyr masse and weyght are sunken lower”). He is “opprest” (Ovid’s “premente” or ‘pressing’) or weighed down with “melancholie,” one of the heavy humours, the other humours being phlegm, blood and choler. The line is made heavier by its extra syllable.
The heaviness will remain until the four elements/humours are reconstituted or made whole again (“recured;” Ovid’s “retexitur”) by the return of air and fire, the poet’s thought and desire. The epistolary is sustained in “composition.” On their return from the friend the “messengers” (air/thought and fire/desire) carry letters of good health that bring comfort and reassurance to the poet (“assured, / Of their faire health”). Hearing their report the poet finds “ioy.” But the cycle of the elements is inexorable: once again finding himself distant from the friend (“no longer glad”), he sends them (air and fire / thought and desire) back to the beloved only to fall immediately into a new despondency (“and straight grow sad”).
45.1. Compare Spenser’s pair of epistolary sonnets, Amoretti 58-59.