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Shakespeare Sonnet 45: "The other two, slight air and purging fire"

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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 45

In Shakespeare sonnet 45, the speaker contemplates the nature and status of his creativity. As the speaker muses on that nature, he concentrates on how the elements of air and fire contribute to his moods and attitudes.

This speaker understands that his body is composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air. He considers the earth and water elements the grosser, or heavier, ones that when mused upon lead to sorrow. The lighter elements of fire and air lead to happier thoughts and creativity.

Sonnet 45

The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever 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 embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppress’d with melancholy;
Until life’s composition be recur’d
By those swift messengers return’d from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assur’d
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:
This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again, and straight grow sad.

Reading of Sonnet 45

Commentary

Sonnet 45 focuses on how the lighter qualities of air and fire play on the speaker’s moods and attitudes, as he contemplates the state of his creativity.

First Quatrain: Bodily Elements

The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

The speaker of sonnet 45 is aware that his body and mind are influenced by the physical body’s composition of earth, water, fire, and air. In sonnet 44, the speaker had mused on the possibility of rapid movement if his body were merely made of thought but concluded that the gross elements of earth and water necessarily and unavoidably confine his nature. As the speaker begins sonnet 45, he refers to "[t]he other two" elements, air and fire. He asserts that his creativity is made of these elements; they "are both with thee."

The speaker's thought resembles air, and his desire resembles fire, and both elements become metaphors for the nature of creativity. Those two elements of air and fire possess the power of "swift motion." They contain and facilitate his thought processes that allow him to create.

Second Quatrain: The Despondence of Materiality

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppress’d with melancholy;

The speaker dramatizes his situation by averring that when his mind flees out of the "quicker elements" and concentrates solely on the bodily elements, he "[s]inks down to death, oppress’d with melancholy." The speaker then becomes despondent thinking only on material existence; without the fleet foot of the astral level of existence where creativity abides, he anticipates only oppression and melancholy.

Third Quatrain: The Essential Being

Until life’s composition be recur’d
By those swift messengers return’d from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assur’d
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

The speaker appreciates that the unity of all the elements, the slow gross ones and the swift lighter ones, connects his essential being to the "fair health" of his creativity. Without the admixture of all four elements, the speaker knows that "life’s composition" would not exist.

While the speaker's moods may be affected by the complexity of the swings in dominance that play among those elements, his ability to catch artistic poses from them must ebb and flow. The speaker's contemplations reassure him that his art will continue to mature while the play of the elements continues in "recounting [the nature of reality] to [him]."

The Couplet: Vacillation Between Joy and Sorrow

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again, and straight grow sad.

Still, even with this admission all well and good and ultimately accepted as reality, the speaker knows he will continue to vacillate between joy and sorrow. The speaker knows that his mind is a playground wherein he moves as on a giant swing: from joy to sorrow, sending his mind through the fleet elements and back again through the gross elements, he grows from joy and then again "straight grow[s] sad."

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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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 11 months ago from U.S.A.

      Thanks, Louise! Yes, while I do admire the plays, I prefer the sonnets. They dramatize crisp, little slices of life . . .

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      Louise Powles 11 months ago from Norfolk, England

      That's lovely Linda. I love Shakespeare. =)

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