‘Sonnet 45,’ also known as ‘The other two, slight air and purging fire,’ is number forty-five of one hundred fifty-four that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six). This sonnet is the follow up to ‘Sonnet 44’. It continues the same thematic discussion that went without a conclusion in the previous fourteen-line poem.
These two elements are immediately described as representatives of the speaker’s thoughts (air) and his desire (fire). They fly back and forth between himself and the youth, always in transit, always conveying their intentions and love to one another. When they are absent, and the speaker is wondering about the youth, he feels sorrow or “melancholy”. When they return, he is brought joy by their presence. That is until they have to leave again.
‘Sonnet 45’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the form known as a “Shakespearean” or Elizabethan 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 45’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and personification. The latter, personification, occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. There is an example in the later lines of the poem when the speaker describes how fire and air, desire and thought, travel between himself and the youth. When they get back to him they “recount” the youth’s “fair health” to the speaker, informing him that all is well.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “love” and “life” in lines six and seven and “down” and “death” in line eight. Enjambment 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 transition between lines five and six and lines seven and eight.
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.
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 45’ the speaker begins by referring back to imagery that he addressed at the end of the previous sonnet, ‘Sonnet 44’. In the last lines of that poem, he discussed his inability to travel as a “thought”. He stated that he was made up of the two heaviest and most tangible elements, water, and earth. In these first lines of ‘Sonnet 45’, he discusses the lighter elements: fire and air.
The air, he says, is “slight” or weightless and the fire is “purging” or purifying. The former is the speaker’s thoughts and the latter is his desire for the youth. They “present absent with swift motion,” he adds. This is a complex way of saying that the two elements, the thought, and the desire, go back and further between the speaker and the youth without effort.
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, oppressed with melancholy;
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 45,’ he adds that usually he is made up of “four” elements but sometimes the air and fire go off “in tender embassy to love” to the youth. Then, the speaker is left with “two alone”. This makes him sink into “death” or depression. He is filled with melancholy for having lost something critical to his emotional wellbeing.
Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who ev’n but now come back again, assured
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.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 45’, the speaker goes on to say that the depression lasts until “life’s composition” is returned to its proper balance. The idea of there being a misbalance in the speaker’s body comes from the Renaissance pre-scientific revolution belief that the body was controlled by humor or eucrasia.
The two elements return to the speaker in the eleventh line and with their return, he is informed that the youth is in good health. They are personified and “recount” it to him. The speaker experiences joy at this knowledge but is soon made sad again by the fact that the two elements have to be seen immediately back to the youth. He is still without this person who he cares so deeply for. It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t have an end or any relief, at least not till the youth comes back.