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

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 44: "If the dull substance of my flesh were thought"

The speaker in sonnet 44 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence is exploring the notion of thought as it relates to the influence of his 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 creature of thought—as well as an element of the soul. As soon as this thought creature escapes him and flies off to destinations unknown, the speaker feels abandoned, left to the influence of his physical and mental encasements—physical body 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 problem period of low inspiration is solved through a useful, fertile drama, focusing on the efficacy of speed and accuracy.

Sonnet 44: If the dull substance of my flesh were 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.
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 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—or more generally, the differences between the material and spiritual levels of being.

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 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 actually move himself as far as he chose, as he continued to follow the fleeting muse. Such an ability makes a marvelous target for contemplation; therefore, he surely feels that he is on to something colorful to enliven a little drama in fourteen lines.

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 that thought is both rapid and nimble, with the wonderfully agile ability to speed and jump even between "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 comes to the realization that the effectiveness such creative power lends through thought remains a miracle. He then detects a contradictory notion, but instead of pursuing it immediately, he lets it wait as he places that resolution into the third 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 frustrated mood brought on by the necessity for reliance on physics. Through colorful exaggeration, he contends that although it "kills [him] that [he is] not thought," he can realize that despite his physical composition of "earth and water," he can and "must attend time’s leisure with [his] moan" (my emphasis added).

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 Elements

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 also 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. He has composed his sonnet through the moans and groans that accompany his complaints. That nature does not conform to his wishes, thus, assists in offering a level of inspiration that total perfection could never do.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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