Sonnet 116

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.

My First Foray in Integralism

Below is my running commentary of an article written by Pater Edmund Waldenstein. It’s my first real attempt to learn and understand the integralist position in the debate surrounding liberalism. Waldenstein’s article is a response to another article by Timothy Troutner who offers a critique of the post-liberal Christian/integralist assessment of liberalism.

(H/T to Jake Meador who brought these articles to my attention through his email newsletter, Notes from a Small Place. I´ll also mention that Waldenstein has a great blog that documents some of his life as a monk at the monastery Stift Heiligenkreuz.)

My General Assessment:

I lean towards Waldenstein’s view, but with a few caveats:

  1. Waldenstein’s vocabulary is very specific, and if we’re going to understand and/or disagree with him, we’ll need to make sure we mean the same thing, for example, by “hierarchy” and “nature.”
  2. I’m concerned he downplays the abuses of hierarchy and power too much in this article. I recognize that his goal isn’t to discuss the abuses of hierarchy per se, and that he’s ultimately making a case for it despite it’s abuses. Still, I think we can’t ignore abuses, especially as it concerns the practical consequences it has on an empirical/social level. At it’s best, I think integralism is an attempt to work with the grain of human nature and the order of the cosmos. But it seems that integralism runs the risk of trying to impose an abstract philosophical/theological ideal onto human relationships and social structures.


1. Christ self-emptying in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion is meant to restore and elevate the hierarchy of creation wounded by sin, not to replace it with egalitarianism. Nor was the Church’s juridical understanding of herself in Christendom an imitation of worldly power, unaffected by Christ’s kenosis. In fact, the very opposite is the case: the form of temporal politics in Christendom was a conscious imitation of the hierarchy of the Church and the rules of the monastic orders. And the ruler was always understood as an image of Christ, bound to give himself for the common good of his commonwealth just as Christ offered himself for the Church.
  • This, to me, is an important component of the integralist argument. Growing up in a non-denominational church, one of the arguments I heard from pastors about why  protestant/evangelical churches eschew the traditional church hierarchy of bishop-priest-deacon is rooted in the kenotic argument that Jesus came down to earth and turned hierarchies upside down. Waldenstein’s point, however, goes deeper and sees Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection as restorative of the natural hierarchy embedded in the cosmos. Sin, at it’s core, is a rebellion against authority. Satan, at the bottom of Dante’s hell, won’t stop flapping his wings out of pride–as if to say, “I will rise of my own power!” Christ reminds us that we are under authority. We are under the authority of God and of the people (e.g., the apostles) who God invests with authority.
2. Waldenstein’s argument/description of hierarchy I think is important to our understanding of integralism. He’s not arguing (…at least, I don’t think he’d say he is…) for a totalitarian structure. Rather his argument is an attempt to argue for a “natural” hierarchy in creation (and in heaven) that worldly power structures would do well to imitate.
3. Robin’s book is a strident defense of the same program of liberation in the form of an attack on the reactionary conservatism that has always opposed it. “Since the modern era began,” Robin writes, “men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions.” Robin sees this series of rebellions of subjects against their rulers—the bourgeoisie against the nobles, peasants against land owners, workers against industrialists, wives against husbands, and so on—as fully just.
  • If I understand him correctly, I think Waldenstein is mainly taking aim at the liberal push for “egalitarianism-at-all-costs.” In which case, this seems like a straw-man argument that would cut both ways. Rebellion against a particular power structure isn’t an inherently good thing, nor is it an inherently bad thing. Rebellion against injustice, on the other hand, is always good (maybe…).
4. As rational beings, men are capable of understanding their good and pursuing it by their own will: true freedom.
  • I like this: there’s a distinction to be made between liberty and license. True liberty is enjoyed when we understand what the good is and then pursue it. License leads to the slavery of sin.
5. I admit, of course, that in human affairs the good of hierarchy has often been abused. Rulers have often exploited their subjects for selfish advantage rather than aiding them to attain to the common good. And, indeed, the world has seen many false hierarchies—such as chattel slavery—founded on unjust principles. But the abuse of something does not take away its proper use.
  • Two thoughts here: 1) This would’ve been an opportune moment for Waldenstein to mention the sex-abuse scandal that plagues the RC church; not doing so feels a little disingenuous. 2) Nevertheless, his last sentence rings true: abuse does not mean no use.
6. The Hierē Archē, the Holy Beginning of all.
  • I did not know the etymology of hierarchy prior to reading Waldenstein’s article, and now I’m a BIG FAN.
7. Here again there is a kind of equality, for each angel enjoys the same common good, but it is an equality that depends on the inequality of their hierarchical order. The spiritual symphony whereby the angels proclaim the Divine Silence is entirely determined in all its acts and motions, and yet this is a completely voluntary and personal determination—in a sense, it is freedom.
  • I’m loving this section on angels. And this idea (quoted above) is something I talked with my students about while reading Dante. Inequality as a good is hard to digest in our liberal order. God, however, is not an egalitarian, and it’s this emphasis that I appreciate about the integralist position. It’s a reminder that heaven won’t be a democratic republic, much less a democracy. God’s will will be done, and it will set us free.
  • I also like this section on angels because it sets him up well for the macro – micro image he argues for later.
8. Lucifer’s sin was therefore a proto-liberal rebellion against hierarchy and obedience.
  • Not to put to fine a point on it, but….LIBERALISM = SATAN
9. Since original sin was rebellion against hierarchy, our Lord’s work of salvation is the exact opposite.
  • His discussion of Satan and the fall is a clever way of turning Troutner’s libido dominandi argument on its head. Hierarchy has never been the problem (even if it’s been abused); it is rebellion that’s the problem, not hierarchy.
10. As long as he is a tyrant who exploits the poor and weak, Herod should indeed fear Christ who comes to save the poor and oppressed. But as a tyrant Herod is himself a rebel. If he were to start ruling for the common good, his power would be legitimate, and he would receive his authority from God.
  • This is also an interesting idea given what I see Waldenstein doing with Troutner’s argument (see point 9 above). He concedes that it’s possible for rebellion to exist within worldly hierarchies–both ecclesiastical and “secular” (for lack of a better word). I’d like for him to flesh this point out more. Is there any redemptive value to rebellion? I’m wondering specifically if we may conceive of Christ’s ministry and the establishment of the kingdom of God as a form of rebellion in this world. Or is “rebellion” the wrong word to describe the work of Christianity in this world? I’m tempted to think it’s the latter–especially if we want to keep our vocabulary clear and consistent.
11. It is certainly true that Christendom did not always live up to such ideals. There were many abuses. But Troutner makes no distinction between abusive and legitimate uses of temporal power. It would be wearisome to go through the examples of the uses of power that Troutner mentions, and distinguish abuses from proper uses (Thomas Pink and others can be consulted on most of them). The point that I want to make here is a more fundamental one: power has good uses.
  • Again, this feels like a deflection regarding the real and horrible abuses that have occurred within the hierarchy of the church catholic (not just RC). But I take his point.