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Shakespeare Sonnet 44: "If the dull substance of my flesh were thought"

Updated on April 18, 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 44

The speaker in Shakespeare sonnet 44 explores the notion of thought as it relates to the influence of his writing muse and his physical body's ability for motion. The speaker knows that the muse, being an ethereal entity, is capable of great speed. The muse is essentially a thought creature. But when this thought creature escapes him and flies off to God-know-where, the speaker feels abandoned to his on physical encasement and mind.

Although the speaker would like to have the same ability to speed off as he chases his muse, he realizes that his slow periods of "moan[ing]" result in his creations. Thus, another writer's block problem is solved through a useful, fertile drama, featuring speed and accuracy.

Sonnet 44

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance should not stop my way;
For then, despite of space, I would be brought,
From limits far remote, where thou dost stay.
No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the furthest earth remov’d from thee;
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land,
As soon as think the place where he would be.
But, ah! thought kills me that I am not thought,
To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone,
But that, so much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan;
Receiving nought by elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 44

Commentary

The speaker is musing on the meaning of space and distance from his muse as he dramatizes the differences between flesh and thought.

First Quatrain: Body and Thought

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance should not stop my way;
For then, despite of space, I would be brought,
From limits far remote, where thou dost stay.

The speaker begins by contemplating a scenario in which his body could take on the attributes of a thought. Because thought can move from one place to another in an instant, if the speaker himself were "thought" instead of "flesh," he could flit through space as effortlessly as a thought can flit through the mind from one idea to the next.

If the speaker could move so expeditiously, then distance would not be "injurious." Nothing could stop the speaker from moving from one place to the next, and thus he could follow his muse as easily as he follows one idea to another. Or the speaker could, "be brought, / From limits far remote, where thou dost stay."

Second Quatrain: Muse Flying Off

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the furthest earth remov’d from thee;
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land,
As soon as think the place where he would be.

The second quatrain reiterates the fact of the rapidity and "nimble[ness]" of thought: it can "jump both sea and land." If the muse flies off beyond his reach, in thought, the speaker can fly off to follow his belovèd muse. The speaker can follow his belovèd muse in thought, despite the fact that that muse may have removed itself to some distant place.

The speaker is astounded by the velocity of thought. He wishes that his body could achieve such speed. The speaker then commences realization of the effectiveness such creative power lends through thought. He then detects a contradictory notion, but instead of pursuing it, puts that resolution into the following quatrain.

Third Quatrain: Bestowing a Moan on Time

But, ah! thought kills me that I am not thought,
To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone,
But that, so much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan;

In the third quatrain, the speaker seeks to sooth his necessity for reliance of physics: although it "kills [him] that [he is] not thought," he can realize that despite his earthy composition of "earth and water," he can and "must attend time’s leisure with [his] moan."

While bestowing a moan on "time’s leisure" may seem a pale duty compared to the fairy-like abilities of flitting from planet to planet, the speaker knows that his liabilities work to his advantage: if he, in fact, had such speed in body, he would lack the motivation to create the products that result from his "attend[ing]" to "time’s leisure." So as the speaker "moan[s]," he creates, and his creativity is vastly more important to him than remaining in grasping distance of his muse, as is evident from the many sonnets devoted to exploring every nuance of his talent.

The Couplet: The Admixture of Earthly Elemenets

Receiving nought by elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.

Because the speaker’s body is made up of earthly elements, water and earth, his mind is governed by those same elements. On the one hand, the speaker is exasperated to be slowed down to what seems like a turtle’s pace; yet, on the other hand, it is his own mind that is capable of realizing the nature of the speed of thought. The speaker's "heavy tears" are converted to a "badge of [] woe," and he gladly shares that badge like a badge of honor with his own creative mind.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

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 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 (Erroneously "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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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