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Shakespeare Sonnet 39: "O! how thy worth with manners may I sing"

Updated on March 23, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford



In Shakespeare Sonnet 39, the speaker is dramatizing a fancied division or separation between himself and his poem. He is creating this distance so that he can acknowledge the value of his creation without slipping into an ugly solipsism.

The speaker knows that his poems are exceptionally well written and that they deserve to be recognized as great art. But he does not want to toot his own horn and praise his poems. Thus he creates a momentary space in which he can attest to the quality of his work.

Reading of Shakespeare sonnet 39

First Quatrain: “O! how thy worth with manners may I sing”

In the first quatrain of Shakespeare Sonnet 39, the speaker questions the poem, asking how he (the speaker) can portray the value of the poem, “When thou art all the better part of me?”

If he dares boast about the poem’s worth, he will simply be praising himself because the poem comes from his “better part,” which is his invaluable and unique talent.

The next lines—“What can mine own praise to mine own self bring? / And what is ’t but mine own when I praise thee?”—obviously reiterate the question. Would he not sound like a pathetic braggart, if he praises his own work?

Second Quatrain: “Even for this let us divided live”

The speaker then drives a wedge between himself and his creation, claiming that if there is at least a slight separation between the creator and his creation, the speaker can then give all the credit to the creation without seeming to be praising himself.

As a poet, this speaker wishes to acknowledge the value of his works, but he knows that any hint of praise for his own creation would seem improper. This speaker's love for his own work will not allow him to permit even a slight appearance of self-aggrandizement.

Those who have observed the solipsistic qualities in certain artists know the disgust that such displays of braggadocio generates. The postmodernists of the late twentieth century raised this kind of art like a proud flag and thereby diminished the prestige of the arts, especially poetry.

Third Quatrain: “O absence! what a torment wouldst thou prove”

In the third quatrain, the speaker becomes quite dramatic as he addresses the separation of himself from his work: “O absence! what a torment wouldst thou prove.”

If his absence from his unity with his poetry were factual, it would actually “torment” the speaker, but the “sour leisure” or temporary hiatus from the true unity merely affords the speaker a respite to contemplate the true love that ties him as artist to his art.

So the supposed separation between artist and his creation is deceptive, yet the interval between the idea of unity and disunity provides a period for sweet thoughts of the love that binds them.

The Couplet: “And that thou teachest how to make one twain”

Not only does the “absence” provide that respite, but it also “teachest how to make one twain.” The speaker is free to think lovingly of his art for the brief time that they are separate because during that interval only the poem remains.

The speaker has taken himself out of the equation, if only for a brief moment, and if only in theory.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 12 months ago from U.S.A.

      Yes, many poets are shy about even calling themselves poets. I remember hearing Marianne Boruch saying that she felt that calling herself "poet" was like calling herself a saint. Such is the reverence writers who have made some progress in the poetry world sustain for that title.

      The Shakespeare sonneteer is a fascinating character, who knows well the nature of his talent, and his sequence of sonnets explores that nature from all angles. We are certainly lucky to be enriched by his efforts.

    • Mark Tulin profile image

      Mark Tulin 12 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

      I find most poets to be humble and seldom brag about themselves. It's their admirers who do all the bragging. Thanks for this well put together hub.