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The Power of Giving Things Away (even Power..)

Sonnet 39

William Shakespeare

We chose Shakespeare’s Sonnet 39 as we have been thinking about the value of giving things away, of delegation and distributed leadership. The poem explores both how I show appreciation for you (or, rather thou), and how we might relinquish control as an act of love. It is essentially a poem about allowing absence to happen – ‘let us divided live’ – and trusting in those around us. It is a lesson in letting go and, instead, ‘entertain[ing] the time with thoughts of love.’


Sonnet 39

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?

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.

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 doth deceive,

And that thou teachest how to make one twain,

By praising him here who doth hence remain.




Poets often feel a separation-anxiety for the poems they write (just as CEO’s feel about their work), Just as we might feel nervous about delegating an important task: where will the poem end up? Will the reader get it? Will it be misinterpreted?


By letting the poem – and the person – go, by releasing our grip on the world, we demonstrate trust and respect that we otherwise would have really lost: ‘That by this separation I may give | That due to thee which thou deserv’st alone.’




William Shakespeare 1564 – 1616) is probably the most famous poet in the English language. Nearly everyone will have heard of Shakespeare – otherwise known enigmatically as The Bard – even if you haven’t read too much. He’s been the scourge of syllabuses in schools across the world for years. And for good reason: he was an extraordinarily prolific – and terrific – playwright, poet, and actor, and, in the relatively short period of time of 27 years, wrote 39 plays, three long narrative poems, and 154 sonnets. His diligence and dedication to his craft is a lesson in itself.




Shakespeare’s lines are typically tricky. He uses complicated syntax (‘word-order’ by another name), metaphors, and puns to form his argument. This sonnet is no different. It’s worth reading it through two or even three times to get the full gist – and there’s nothing wrong in reading it slowly – or even aloud. The slower we read, the more we notice. For instance, on top of the poem’s argument, we can see how the rhyme is adding to the effect: Shakespeare rhymes the pronouns ‘me’ and ‘thee’ to create an acoustic connection for the relationship between people that he’s describing. Though there is distance between each figure, they’re  held together by the fidelity of their shared music.

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