I recently led/participated in a discussion on Shakespeare’s sonnets. The discussion produced observations and insights that I’d like to record here.
We spent most of our time discussing Sonnet 116–a popular poem to read at weddings–in relation to a few others. Below, I’ve written the poem in full, followed by commentary on individual lines/sections.
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 wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height 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 bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
1. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.”
In the opening sentence, “minds,” I think, is the key word. The kind of love the speaker praises is non-physical and not, therefore, limited by the body. I find this somewhat concerning since it transforms love into a cerebral phenomenon. Does love have nothing to do with the body? For example, does love require the physical presence of the beloved, or is the mere thought of the person good enough? Also, what does it mean to be true to another mind?
This might be reading too much into these opening words. But if the speaker is writing a poem in praise of an abstract concept of love, then he would seem to run the risk of reducing love to a mental function.
There’s also a legal connotation to Shakespeare’s words: “Admit” has a range of meanings, including “allow for the possibility of,” “confess to be true,” and “accept as valid”–all three of which have legal implications. Similarly, “impediment” is used in the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage service–a service that represents both a legal and spiritual transaction/commitment.
The word “true” is also curious: first of all, it’s not used in reference to love or marriage, but to “minds.” It could mean “authentic” and/or “faithful.” If we were to outline the narrative of events implied by the opening sentence, it’s fair to assume that the “minds” were true to each other prior to marriage. In which case, “marriage” is, perhaps, the consummation of each mind’s faithfulness to the other.
Notice that Shakespeare hasn’t even mentioned the word “love” yet. It isn’t until the second half of the second line that “love” explicitly enters the conversation. “Marriage,” which includes/presupposes love, is not love itself, and contains further implications about the hard work required to sustain a marriage relationship. Marriage isn’t always the pure joy of romance. To remain faithful requires intention, diligence, and sacrifice. It’s easy to read the opening sentence of Sonnet 116 and become starry-eyed about the happiness of love and marriage. But, as we’ll see later in the sonnet, love must endure tempests that would derail the marriage of “true minds.”
The scansion in this first line is also interesting: it begins with a trochee (“LET me”), and then resolves in iambic rhythm. Shakespeare is playing with rhythm and meter throughout the poem. He again breaks the iambic pentameter in the twelfth line as well, where he adds a syllable and interrupts the iamb in the fourth foot (“evEN TO the EDGE of DOOM”)–more on that line later.
2. “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…”
The poem’s first attempt to define love is to cast it in the negative. It begins, “love is not love,” and then provides two examples: love doesn’t change when the beloved changes, and it does it stop loving even if the beloved no longer reciprocates. The first example carries connotations of physical change–the beloved will not remain physically beautiful forever, so the lover must learn to love despite the inevitable change. The second example is a higher calling: to love without the condition of being loved in return. The problem of time and change permeate both examples, but love, if it is true, will remain steadfast, focused and committed to the beloved.
I’m able to follow the speaker in his definition of love so far, but his insistence on the steady nature of love is bewildering. Given my own experience and what I’ve read of the experience of others, love is rarely an “ever-fixed mark.” The object of love is fixed–what Plato might define as beauty (c.f. Symposium)–but love itself ranges far and wide, sometimes deceived concerning the object of its desire. In what sense is Shakespeare’s love a reliable love?
3. “That looks on tempests, and is never shaken; / It is the star to every wandering bark, / Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”
To clarify what he means by “ever-fixed mark,” the speaker employs a nautical metaphor. Love is Polaris, the north star, guiding every wandering ship through bad weather. As such, it’s real value is unmeasurable. But this metaphor doesn’t actually answer the question I asked in the previous section: it merely restates, with great emphasis, the thesis that love is fixed.
4. “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come;”
Now the speaker returns to defining love in the negative: “Love is not…” and “Love alters not…” But I’m still not convinced that the speaker has made his argument any clearer. He continues to emphasize the non-corporeality of love. Unlike rosy lips and cheeks, love won’t succumb to time’s sickle (…I have an image of the Grim Reaper walking around in this poem killing everything except love).
5. “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
At this point, pronouns become important. I think the “his” and “it,” here, refer to time (and perhaps everything else “time” stands for: decay, change, death, etc.). Love bears the changes of time to the very end, which may mean simply death or some kind of divine judgment day.
The speaker also returns to playing with the meter and rhythm of the poem (see point 1 above). Metrically, the line “But bears it out…” contains eleven syllables instead of the usual ten. I like to think that it’s a metrical representation of the content: like love, the meter bears its meaning out to the very end, falling off the edge of doom with that extra syllable. It ultimately resolves in an iambic foot, but not before breaking the rhythm half way through.
Apart from the way the meter echoes the content of the line, I also get the sense that the speaker is straining to say what he means. The speaker is making a profound, some might say irrational, claim that love bears the changes and decay of time even to the edge of doom. Why would love remain faithful in this way? What benefit is it to the lover? Is the poet actually praising love or lamenting the sad fate that love, in its true form, imposes on anyone it pulls into its gravitational orbit?
We don’t get answers to any of these questions. Instead, we simply transition to the couplet.
6. “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
It’s interesting to me that the speaker doesn’t end with a grand gesture to the glory and joy of love. Instead, he simply asserts that what he’s said is true whether we like it or not. And just to up the ante, if his previous description of love is not true, well then no one has ever loved and he’s never written about it.
At this point, I’m not sure what the speaker is up to in this poem. On the one hand, he’s speaking eloquently about love, presenting readers with a beautiful vision of faithfulness in the marriage of “true minds.” On the other hand, there seems to be a subtle irony implied in the couplet and in the lack of any clear definition of what love is. I don’t want to read the poem too cynically. But right now I’m not convinced that this is meant to be an uncritical ode to love.