‘Sonnet 44,’ also known as ‘If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,’ is number forty-four of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six). This particular poem discusses, once again, separation and solitude. The speaker is longing for the Fair Youth and dreaming about being by his side. It should be read in tandem with ‘Sonnet 45’ which comes next in the series.
Sonnet 44 William Shakespeare 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 farthest earth removed 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.
Although the speaker dreams of this new mode of transport and existence, he knows that it’s impossible. There’s no way for him to easily span the distance between himself and the Fair Youth. The speaker adds at the end of the poem that his body is made of the two more tangible and heaviest elements, water, and earth. These cannot flit through the air.
‘Sonnet 44’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the form known as a “Shakespearean” or English sonnet. The poem 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 44’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and allusion. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “For, “From,” and “far” in lines three and four as well as “leap large lengths” in line ten.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to the mind without directly stating it. In the last lines of the poem, the poet alludes to a generalized belief at the time that everything on earth was made up of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines three and four and nine and ten.
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.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 44,’ the speaker begins by picking up on similar themes to the addressed in the previous sonnet, ‘Sonnet 43’. In those fourteen lines, he spoke of the distance between himself and the Fair Youth. Now, he is considering what it would be like if he were not “flesh” but instead “were thought”.
The situation would change drastically if somehow he could span, without effort, the distance between himself and the youth. The “injurious” or wicked distance between the two would not “stop” the speaker’s “way” as he sought out the youth. He would be brought to the youth’s side no matter the distance in this scenario.
No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 44’, he adds that it wouldn’t matter where his “foot did stand” on the earth. It could be on the father’s “removed from thee” and he could be by the youth’s side in an instant. His nimble mind, which is all that exists of him in this metaphorical world, would allow him to jump “both sea and land”. All he would have to do is think of where he wants to go and he’d be there. This dream is a powerful one, and one that many readers will likely be able to relate to in one way or another.
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 naughts by elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 44,’ the speaker changes tactics and says that “ah” it is killing him that he is not able to do what he outlined. He wishes he had the ability to learn over the “large length” of miles (a good example of alliteration). Rather, his body is made of “earth and water”. This is an allusion to the belief that the body and all matter on earth are made up of the four elements, earth, water, air, and fire. The first two were considered to be heaviest and therefore the least able to travel lightly and quickly as the speaker desires.
In the final two lines of the poem, Shakespeare does not provide a conclusion. Rather, he asserts that his substance, that of water and earth, gave him nothing but “heavy tears”. He is weighed down further by his sorrow. The next sonnet, ‘Sonnet 45,’ picks up where this one leaves off.