‘Sonnet 39,’ also known as ‘O how thy worth with manners may I sing,’ is number thirty-nine of 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets, numbers one through one hundred twenty-six. In this particular poem, the speaker addresses the need to create distance between himself and his beloved. Themes of absence, separation, love, and devotion are all present in ‘Sonnet 39’.
In the first part of ‘Sonnet 39,’ the speaker asks the youth rhetorical questions in regards to their relationship and their connection. The speaker feels as though by praising the youth he is really just praising himself, as the two are so connected. This leads him to suggest that they should separate so that the speaker’s words do the youth justice and don’t reflect back on him.
The prospect of absence brings the speaker sorrow but the fact that the gets to spend it engulfed in writing about love makes things easier to bear.
‘Sonnet 39’ by William Shakespeare is a poem that is structured in the form known as a “Shakespearean” or English sonnet. It is fourteen lines long and is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. They follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and are written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 39’. These include but are not limited to apostrophe, alliteration, and anaphora. The first of these, apostrophe, appears in the last six lines of ‘Sonnet 39’. It is an arrangement of words addressing someone, something, or a creature, that does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. The exclamation “Oh” is often used at the beginning of the phrase. The subject is spoken to as though they can hear and understand the speaker’s words. In this case, the speaker directs his words to “absence”.
Shakespeare also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. There is an example in the use of “O” at the beginning of lines one and nine as well as “And” at the beginning of lines four and six and “That” at the beginning of lines seven and eight.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. In this case, a reader can look to “mine,” which appears three times in lines three and four as well as “let,” “live,” and “love lose” in lines five and six.
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 ‘Sonnet 39,’ the speaker begins by addressing the Fair Youth with a rhetorical question. This structure is similar to that which occurred in the previous two sonnets. A close reader will also find similarities in the themes in ‘Sonnet 39’ as well as sonnets 35, 36, and 37. He asks the Fair Youth, without expecting an answer, how he is supposed to adequately celebrate or share the youth’s beauty, goodness, and importance. If he thinks that if he truly speaks on the youth as he is that the poems that he is going appear vain. The youth is his better half, the “better part of me”. Since they are united in this way, any compliment to the youth also goes to the speaker.
He asks another two-part question in the next two lines as he wonders over what “mine own praise” can bring to himself.
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.
In the next four lines, the speaker goes on to say that they need to have some separation. They need to “divided live” and lose the “name of single one”. Their common identity has to be shaken off so that the speaker can adequately praise the youth. Without this separation, he is really just praising himself and the youth deserves more than that.
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 dost deceive,
And that thou teachest how to make one twain,
By praising him here who doth hence remain.
In the final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 39,’ the speaker continues talking in regards to the youth but directs his words towards “absence”. This force is personified. The speaker describes how if it weren’t for the “sweet leave,” or time, to write about love, the separation would be a torment. Because the speaker is able to fill up his lonely hours with thoughts of love he is much less miserable.
Absence is teaching the speaker how to separate himself from his love, to “make one twain”. This allows for the creation of worthwhile writings while the youth is elsewhere.