Sonnet 116: Poem by Shakespeare - Summary & Analysis

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Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark.
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand ring bark.
Whose worth's unknown, although his heighth be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But beats it out even to the edge of doom:-
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Poem Summary

Lines: 1-2
      The speaker seems to have in mind the marriage vow, as it appears in The Book of Common Prayer: "If either of you do know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony." But if lie is in fact responding to this question, his meaning is ambiguous. He might be saying that no one should let him acknowledge that there are obstacles to the marriage; conversely, he may be vowing that he will never recognize any problems interfering with a true union. The difficulties encountered in the meaning of the first sentence are reflected in its negative cast (let me not) as well: as its construction. Not only is it a run on line, but it fights against being placed in the regular meter of iambic pentameter from its beginnings. The sentence does not conform to poetic conventions, much as the speaker refuses to give an easy or expected answer.

Lines: 2-3
      The last half of line 2 seems absurd, unless the reader realizes that the speaker may be addressing two different types of love. Unconditional "Love," not the "love" that changes or causes change, is the subject of this sonnet; coincidentally or not, the more desirable emotional state is distinguished by a capital of each time it is mentioned (tine 9 and line 11).

Line: 4
      In this line, the speaker continues to stress that true love is unbendable, and cannot be transferred from one site to another. But there is clearly a deeper meaning in lines 2 through 4, suggested by the repetition or doubling of many of the words, such as "tave," "alter," (repeated for a third time in line 11), "remove." even "bend". These verbal pairings may represent the harmony of "Love" - or on the other hand, a lesser lover's desire to imitate or become like his partner.

Line: 5-6
      In the second quatrain, the speaker begins to describe what real love actually is, after using three lines to inform the reader of what love is not. It would seem that he has at last moved to an affirmative statement about this emotion. Yet he begins with a negative exclamation, and continues to cite what love does not do; like a guiding light over rough waters, love is unvarying and unswerving.

Lines: 7-8
      The nautical metaphor used to describe true love in lines 5 and 6 is continued in the next two lines. First a lighthouse, and now a star, help travelers find their way. Because a star's altitude must be calculated in order to use it as a guide, its distance from earth is no longer a mystery; what remains unknown is its value, or its very nature. Similarly, love provides direction for those who are searching or lost, and though its status is established, its true value is limitless.

Lines: 9-10
      The first quatrain explained what love is not; the second one attempted to define what true love is; now, in the third quatrain, the speaker alternates between naming what love's characteristics are, and are not. Thus the "mirroring" noted in the language of lines 2 through 4 can also be seen in die construction of the sonnet's quatrains, and probably has similar implications. Using the figure of speech known as personification, the speaker refers to the scythe-wielding Father Time in lines 9 and 10, Though beauty and youth are eventually the victims of his blade, true love remains unaffected by his wrath. The idea of "bending", first used in line 4, has multiple meanings here: not only is Time's sickle bent or curved, but it also bends or lays low the metaphorical "roses" of a young person's complexion. The "compass" of Time's scythe is its sweeping arc, but it is also a device used to guide ships, and thus reminds the reader of the preceding nautical metaphor.

Lines: 11-12
      The pronouns of these lines are ambiguous. "His brief hours" are probably Father Time's, but the phrase may also be referring to Love's ability to make time fly, or any mortar's short life span. In line 12, "it" is part of a phrase that means to endure, but the pronoun may also refer to Time or his sickle. In any case, the eternal consistency and constancy of love is once again stressed to the lover's death, or even until doomsday. The accents of line 12 conjure up the sounds of a tolling funeral bell.

Lines: 13-14
      With their monosyllabic diction and seemingly straightforward reasoning, these lines are deceptively simple. But what actually is "this"; is it the preceding statement, or the entire argument? And even if the speaker was proven false, how could it be that he never wrote (when the reader knows full well that the speaker is the composer of the sonnet), and no one ever fell in love? The twisted logic of this "if-then" statement leaves no room for errors of any kind. The speaker's difficult argument thus draws to a forced conclusion, though nothing has been affirmed or denied.

Critical Analysis

      An affirmation of the certitude and the enduring qualities of love, "Sonnet 116'' (published in 1609) is nevertheless remarkably negative in tone. Rather than learning what love is. the reader is taught what love is not; even when the speaker begins to use metaphors to describe the constancy and endurance of this emotion, he discuss what love does not do, what is not known about it and prefaces these observations with a "o, no." To add to the confusion, the poem's simultaneous and opposing messages are conveyed in simple words, but with complicated logic. The final couplet uses a monosyllabic vocabulary in an especially difficult example of "redwood aluminum". But perhaps the strangest juxtaposition regarding "Sonnet 116" is this: though the sonnet is probably one of the least understood in Shakespeare's 154 poem sonnet sequence, it is a perennial favorite and a popular anthology poem.

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