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

Updated on April 30, 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

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 39

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.

Sonnet 39

O! How thy worth with manners may I sing
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine own praise to mine own self bring?
And what is ’t but mine own when I praise thee?
Even for this let us divided live,
And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee, which thou deserv’st alone.
O absence! what a torment wouldst thou prove,
Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
Which time and thoughts so sweetly doth deceive,
And that thou teachest how to make one twain,
By praising him here who doth hence remain.

Reading of Shakespeare sonnet 39

Commentary

Sonnet 39 finds the speaker dramatizing a division between himself and his poem, in order to think lovingly about the value of the poem without slipping into solipsism.

First Quatrain: How to Approach His Poem's Worth

O! How thy worth with manners may I sing
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine own praise to mine own self bring?
And what is ’t but mine own when I praise thee?

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: Distinguishing Self and Creation

Even for this let us divided live,
And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee, which thou deserv’st alone.

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: A Drama of Separation

O absence! what a torment wouldst thou prove,
Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
Which time and thoughts so sweetly doth deceive,

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: The Respite of Absence

And that thou teachest how to make one twain,
By praising him here who doth hence remain.

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.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poet's has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    16 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 

    16 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.

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