Reminder: A Hermeneutics of Suspicion is Bad for Children

From C.S. Lewis’ underrated and under-read book An Experiment in Criticism:

“For this reason I am very doubtful whether criticism is a proper exercise for boys and girls. A clever schoolboy’s reaction to his reading is most naturally expressed by parody or imitation. The necessary condition of all good reading is ‘to get ourselves out of the way’; we do not help the young to do this by forcing them to keep on expressing opinions.”

“If you already distrust the man you are going to meet, everything he says or does will seem to confirm your suspicions. We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can’t be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader.”

A few thoughts occurred to me as I ran across these passages.

1) Imitation is not a “skill” or “learning objective.” You can’t measure it. It’s a natural response that stems from a place of deep admiration, a desire to participate in something good/beautiful, and an impulse to see a good/beautiful thing reproduced in a new way.

2) Teaching a young student to love literature is very different from using literature to teach critical thinking skills. Critical thinking attempts to decode and to deconstruct for the purpose of finding the “true” (i.e., subversive!) meaning of a text. I can’t think of anything more contrary to the way a child approaches the world. Critical thinking doesn’t produce wonder, it crushes it.

3) Let me clarify: not all critical thinking is bad. Obviously, as a teacher, I don’t want to encourage students to simply accept philosophical, theological, scientific, or literary ideas at face value. But I also don’t want them to become disposed to suspicion–as if cynicism is the only virtue that’ll keep us safe from a mindless devotion to the deluge of media information. If critical thinking will have a proper place in education, it’s to instill a greater admiration for the form and context of a work of art. Unfortunately, it’s too often an act of analysis that is too quick to say things like, “Shakespeare was gay!” and “Chaucer was a proto-feminist!” and then revel in the idea that these authors were merely subversive thinkers during their time according to contemporary western cultural values.

4) If we’re going to teach young students how to read well, we should aid them in their natural capacity for wonder. My one year old son’s ability to wonder at his fingers and dead leaves in the same breath can be disarming to someone, like me, whose mode of operation is primarily task-oriented. Wonder can also be undermined by a constant concern that everyone is trying to sell you something or convince you of an unorthodox opinion. I’m more and more convinced that sometimes we can relax. If you enjoy a movie, painting, or piece of music, don’t worry about whether there’s an underlying agenda. Just enjoy it. And then ask yourself why you enjoy it. It turns out that you may learn something more wonderful about yourself and the thing you enjoy.

 

How Does Christ Save Us?

From Father Thomas Hopko’s podcast, Speaking the Truth in Love:

What seems to be the teaching — and here we each have to read the Scriptures and follow the Church teachings and the councils and the Fathers to try to understand this properly — what seems to be the teachings is that he loves perfectly, he fulfills all righteousness, he fulfills all aspects of how we ought to relate to God properly. When we are fallen into sin — and God gives us the Law of Moses that is a pedagogos, a teacher to the coming of Christ — he fulfills all of the teachings of the Torah of Israel. He’s born into the world, he’s offered in the temple, he’s circumcised on the eighth day, he keeps the Law perfectly. It’s his perfect keeping of the Law, which is ultimately perfect love for God and neighbor, that is what redeems us. That is what is going to remove the wrath of God from us, because, if you have an Adam, a real Adam, a real human being, who really is God’s Son and lives like God’s Son, which we were all created to do — Adam and Eve, they were created to be children of God. Adam is called Son of God in Scripture. He was created to be really what God is by grace, and he failed through sin. But when he fails through sin, the way he gets forgiven and redeemed is not by offering sufficient punishment and pain according to the sins he has committed, it’s, rather, that he is saved by one who keeps the Law, who does the commandments. And it’s interesting, that in Orthodox Church Holy Week, over the tomb of Jesus, when he lies dead in the tomb, is the 118th/119th Psalm, the real long one about the commandments, the ordinances, the statutes, the words, the laws of God that are kept by Jesus that then save us and redeem us from the curse of the Law.

Because the curse is lifted for what reason? Not because sufficient punishment was made, but the curse is lifted because righteousness has been effected. You have a sinless life. You have a sinless messiah, taking on himself the sin and curse of the world, so that God’s wrath would not directed against us again, if we offer it to God, and he offers himself on our behalf to God, and we say to God, “Lord, we’re sinners. We’ve broken all the commandments, but our messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the commandments. He has done this for us and for our salvation.” That’s why he came into the world.

So, Jesus on the Cross is the perfect lover. He’s the perfect human being. He’s the absolutely sinless man and therefore he is that one man, that new Adam, who comes from heaven to fulfill the Law of God in our place, so that in and through him and by faith in him God will consider us righteous before himself, because we do finally have a human being, an Adam, that we can live according to him and therefore be delivered from the curse of the Law and the wrath of God.

I’ll be mulling this over for the foreseeable future, but this view of the atonement–which I hear primarily coming from the Orthodox quarters of Christianity–makes a lot of sense to me. Punishment in and of itself is arbitrary. The idea that Christ is someone who came to earth in order to take our place for the corporate punishment God had been inflicting on humanity does not fit well with the nature and effects of sin.

As I understand it, sin is a fundamental disordering and deteriorating force within the human person. (I’m getting this idea from Dante and  Athanasius…among others). Death is the natural consequence of sin, not an imposed punishment from God. God doesn’t place people in hell the way parents will place their kids in timeout for breaking a rule. Sin goes to the heart of the individual, making them disposed to self-destruction.

If, as I believe it is, this is an accurate way of describing sin and its effects, then no amount of substitutionary punishment will resolve the problem of sin. I can imagine, for example, my brother willingly receiving the timeout punishment in my place, even though he didn’t break the rule about eating ice cream right before dinner. But what does it matter? My appetite is already ruined and my parents remain disappointed in what they perceive to be my brother’s behavior. No redemption of any kind has taken place. Sin continues to reign in my own heart even though I’ve escaped the punishment.

So what’s the alternative? Something like Hopko’s description of the atonement. In Christ, humanity itself is revitalized. We are shown a way forward, secure in the knowledge that salvation is possible thanks to the trail blazed by Christ and his ongoing intercessory work on our behalf.

Maybe I’m overstating the significance of this difference and/or maybe I’m wrong–Lord knows I’m not a professional theologian by any stretch of the imagination. But given the condition of human nature and the effects of sin, any understanding of the atonement–specifically how it works–requires a careful explanation that complicates and supplements the idea of Christ-as-substitute.

THS: BenOp before BenOp

Continuing my observations after reading C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength

Observation #2: St. Anne’s is the BenOp prior to all the hubbub about BenOp
I was struck by how St. Anne’s on the Hill more-or-less prefigures the recent discussions and debates surrounding Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. Tour the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand | HGTV

St. Anne’s is a quasi-agrarian household–complete with a garden and (from Jane’s perspective) a backward social structure based on conservative/traditional values regarding gender, religion, etc. St. Anne’s is the primary resistance to the growing threat of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE).

The NICE, in contrast, is a bureaucracy: it abstracts humanity into numbers and then attempts to harness the evolutionary process through technology. It is, more importantly, progressive. It wants to better humanity by discarding tradition and marching towards an ever purer form of human existence–one that is free from the messiness and limitations of biology.

One of the recurring debates at St. Anne’s is the usefulness of their resistance. MacPhee, the hyper-rational logician and skeptic, frequently raises the complaint that while the NICE continues to grow and gain power, the small group of insurgents at St. Anne’s continue to do nothing. They garden, cook meals, argue with one another, corral Mr. Bultitude–the bear–whenever he traipses through the garden or wanders too close to the fence, and–worst of all–wait for orders from Ransom’s masters (i.e., the eldil) in whom some of the members have little or no faith.

There is so much waiting at St. Anne’s and so little doing. There is no “warrior class” or “special operations unit” making attacks on the NICE. There is no “war room,” per se, where the members of St. Anne’s talk at length about their plans. There is only waiting.

In an article from 2015, Jake Meador describes the St. Anne’s strategy well, comparing it to the current state of evangelical Christians in 21st century America:

In one of the essential texts for today’s church, C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the insurgents rebelling against the sexual industrial complex of the modern west are not culture warriors assailing the institutions slowly consuming our earth and its creatures. Rather, their insurgency takes the form of faithful living in an out-of-the-way manor house out in the English countryside called St. Anne’s. It was at St. Anne’s that these people could live in fellowship with one another and with God’s creation while they waited for the undoing of the NICE in a Tower-of-Babel-style collapse. The future of Evangelicalism will either look less like Willow Creek or Mars Hill and more like St. Anne’s or it will not exist.

I like Meador’s emphasis on the lack of “culture warriors” in his description of St. Anne’s: the urge to “DO SOMETHING” productive–i.e., something quantifiable and empirically useful–would be the undoing of St. Anne’s because it would result in its dissolution. NICE is too big to be threatened by an external attack from the small group of people at St. Anne’s. And NICE’s cultural influence and political power is too ubiquitous to be hampered by a political campaign based on the St. Anne’s way of life. Anything other than small, faithful living would be doomed to fail.

It’s worth noting, however, that St. Anne’s, despite being an out-of-the-way manor house, remains the sole form of rebellion against NICE. Lewis intentionally wants to draw our attention to St. Anne’s as the only productive form of resistance. It may feel like useless inaction, or passive aggressive behavior, or even like a retreat to the bunkers. But we would be mistaken. To live faithfully in small ways requires a herculean effort of courage, determination, and hope no military charge would require of its members. It’s easier to act rashly than it is to wait patiently.

If you’re concerned about cultural trends in 21st century America, think small. Forego flashy exploits or rhetorical dunking on your opponents. How does your way of life reflect your beliefs? Are you willing to sacrifice the conveniences  and cachet of cultural relevance–and I mean everything from staying up-to-date on the latest Netflix shows to life-style trends like minimalism and F.I.R.E.?

The cultural battles ahead (…if you can call them battles…) won’t be won on a grand stage; it won’t be decided by a single showdown where the champion will win glory for himself/herself. It will probably be won in a garden–somewhere on an obscure patch of land in an obscure region of the world. After all, as Meador points out, the battle is not ours to win.

The Odyssey and Not Knowing

I’m rereading the Odyssey right now and it has occurred to me that one of the fundamental themes throughout the entire story revolves around the problem of uncertainty.

Because Telemachus and Penelope do not know the fate of Odysseus, they cannot maintain order in his house. If he were dead, then there would be social customs Telemachus could set in motion that would keep the evil (i.e., inhospitable!) suitors at bay. But because Odysseus’ whereabouts are unknown, neither Telemachus or Penelope have sufficient grounds for taking action and restoring order to the home.

And for some reason, the gods seem to be in on the whole thing.

Athena sends Telemachus on a journey to Pylos, where he’ll meet with Nestor and eventually Menelaus to ask about his father’s condition. She goes to great lengths to set this errand in motion:

  • She pleads (twice!) with the council of the gods (…mostly with Zeus) to save Odysseus and they agree to do so;
  • She disguises herself as a friend of Telemachus (Mentor) and urges him to provoke the suitors and then to take a ship to Pylos;
  • She goes with Telemachus to visit Nestor, and then heads back to the ship.

Then there’s the strange moment where she sends Penelope a dream at the end of book IV, assuaging her sorrow about Telemachus’ journey and to encourage her to stay strong in Odysseus’ absence. Penelope, recognizing the dream as sent from Athena, does a reasonable thing: SHE ASKS ATHENA ABOUT ODYSSEUS’ WHEREABOUTS (…something Telemachus has neglected to do up to this point).

But does Athena give Penelope an answer? No.

“As for that other one (Odysseus), I will not tell you the whole story

whether he lives or has died. It is bad to babble emptily.” (IV.836-37)

Leaving aside the fact that it wouldn’t be empty babble since Athena in fact knows where Odysseus is and whether he’ll return to Ithaca, I wonder what the purpose of holding Penelope and Telemachus in suspense serves.

Is it purely for dramatic effect? Maybe. But that seems cheap and uncharacteristic of Homer if it’s the only reason.

My current thought hovers around the idea about the purpose and effect of knowledge itself. One of the conditions of the human experience is its uncertainty about it’s past, present, and future circumstances. Nevertheless, despite a felt lack of certain knowledge, humans attempt to bring order out of chaos, justice out of injustice. In order to do so, there needs to be some shared sense/acknowledgment of a fundamental ordering principle–e.g., what is justice?

In the case of the Odyssey, that principle is Odysseus. His name, his accomplishments, and his reputation have brought his house into existence by giving it definition and a source from which it’s renown and order stems. Presumably, Odysseus could die, and his house would remain given the social customs surrounding death.

(E.G., one of the reasons Telemachus wants to find out what has happened to Odysseus is so that he can erect a funeral pyre and tomb to bring everlasting honor and fame to his father).

But what do you do if the fundamental ordering principle of your house is missing? Not just dead, but absent without trace or explanation? What if he’s still alive, but you can’t find him? Do you continue to behave as if he is still alive? Or do you behave as if he’s dead?*

In other words, how should you live?

Odysseus’ house is in disarray at the beginning of the Odyssey. Not because it has been openly attacked, but because it has been in a state of arrested development for nearly twenty years, and now the effects of its slow deterioration have surfaced.

And isn’t this state of affairs characteristic of the human condition: more often than we care to admit, we suffer more from our sins of omission than sins of commission. Unlike Telemachus and Penelope, we lose hope that Odysseus will return, or fail to search for him as ardently as Telemachus. If we’re lucky, we’ll wake up to our inattention, like Dante waking up to find himself lost in a dark wood.

———-

*Questions along these lines have me thinking a lot about the opening of Plato’s dialogue Timaeus: “One, two, three; but where, my dear Timaeus, is the fourth…?”

 

 

That Hideous Strength: Fiction vs. Reality

I just finished reading the third book in C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. I haven’t read it since high school, and I regret every decision that distracted me from picking it up again.

In the next few posts, I’m going to reflect on a few observations that stood out to me this time around.

Observation #1: Fiction vs. Reality

Several aspects of Lewis’ biography stood out to me–he quotes directly from Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres, he references Owen Barfield’s theory of semantic “ancient unities,” and Tolkien’s myth of Numenor. I’m also convinced that it would be possible (and I’m sure someone has already done it) to map many of the real-life Inklings members onto the characters in the story. Lewis, obviously, is the Ulsterman MacPhee–the snuff-addicted, hyper-rational skeptic member of St. Anne’s on the Hill.

The cross-over between Lewis’ real life and the fictional world of the story creates an effect that blurs the line between fiction and reality. The self-assertion of the narrator also contributes to the effect. The narrator frequently interrupts the story with personal/retrospective opinions about the events; he refers to himself with masculine pronouns; and he explicitly states his own limitations as a narrator. However, it’s not clear how/why the narrator knows as much he does about the details of the story–especially the thoughts and emotions of many of the characters. This narrative device is often used in fairy tales, which makes sense given the subtitle of the book: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. But I think its significance plays into Lewis’ deeper philosophical conception of the relationship between fiction and real-life.

For example. In his essay, “On Stories,” Lewis writes:

To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series–the plot, as we call it–is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path.

The “quality” or “state” is the reality caught by the fictional series of events and characters who act, think, and appear in very specific ways. For Lewis, this has a direct correlation with everyday life and forms one of the underpinning themes of the book. Based on the knowledge we have about biological life we have three interpretive/philosophical options in front of us, all of which are represented by three different groups of people in That Hideous Strength:

  1. The Materialist Interpretation: We can, like Mark Studdock and many people within the N.I.C.E., define life down to purely physical phenomena–e.g., emotions are merely chemical reactions in the brain; the appearance of “ghosts” are hallucinations, etc. The physical world does not point beyond itself. It is, instead, a highly rationalistic, machine-like system. Every event or phenomenon has a material explanation that explains away whatever spiritual significance we think it may have.
  2. The Evolutionary Interpretation: The N.I.C.E. looks at human evolution and attempts to harness it and direct it to what the organization perceives as a “higher” mode of existence. The ultimate goal is to transcend human physicality–i.e., the aspects of an embodied existence that hamper intellectual achievements. Birth, decay, and death stand in the way of human achievement. This philosophy is a form of trans-humanism–the attempt to evolve beyond our physical limitations.
  3. The St. Anne’s Interpretation: I don’t know what label to give this interpretation. Fundamentally, it stems from a traditionally Christian anthropology: man is neither solely beast (materialist) or solely angel (evolution); he is by nature an in-between creature–one for whom there seems to be infinite potential, but never at the cost of either aspects of his nature. In the image of St. Anne’s on the Hill, Lewis describes a kind of monastic commune where the people work in a garden, maintain friendly relations with animals, submit themselves in obedience to the authority of Ransom, and, in the end, entertain the gods. The community of St. Anne’s represents the ultimate–and only–resistance to the growing evil and encroachment of the N.I.C.E. It resists by cultivating a way of life, not by marching out against the enemy (much to the frustration of MacPhee). It’s an odd form of resistance because it doesn’t feel like anything is being done. No quantifiable progress is being made–nobody attempts to capture enemy soldiers, commit espionage, or invade N.I.C.E. headquarters. Instead, they simply wait and obey. Preserving a way of life, especially one centered on an anthropology that is conducive to man’s dual nature, is the only effective resistance against evil. Any other active form of resistance falls into the trap of mirroring, and ultimately being consumed by, the enemy’s own tactics (…there are echoes here of Saruman’s downfall in Tolkien’s The Two Towers).

Like our understanding of a story, all three philosophical alternatives attempt to make sense of the world by way of it’s events, characters, and physical structure. These give rise to the plot of every day life, the net whereby we try “to catch something else.” And in this instance, the “something else” is a proper understanding of human nature and the cosmos.

By blurring the lines between fiction and reality in That Hideous Strength, Lewis prompts readers to confront their conception of reality–or, at least, our interpretation of the physical world which suggests/signifies/indicates/catches “something else.”

 

 

The Dalbeys are on the Move

A quick update on the family:

I recently accepted a job at The Saint Constantine School (TSCS) in Houston, TX. I will step into the position of Middle School Great Books Instructor and, hopefully over the next few years, work closely with the TSCS College as an English Instructor.5 Amazing Queen-Saints You Need To Know About – EpicPew

TSCS was started by a former professor of mine at Biola along with several friends in my graduating class. I’ve been following TSCS since it’s beginning, and I’m excited not only for the professional opportunities I will be afforded but for reconnecting with long-time friends.

If you’re interested in the Classical School movement–a movement that’s been gaining momentum over the past couple decades–you can’t do much better than TSCS. There are many aspects of its educational philosophy that excite me, some of which I will probably discuss in future posts. For now, check out their blog and podcasts to get an idea for their approach to education.

Despite the joy and excitement of transitioning into a new job, my wife and I will find it difficult to leave the community of people we’ve come to love here in Murfreesboro, TN. Thanks, in part, to our busy summer (we’re leaving for CA next week, and then we’ll have about a month to pack, find a place to rent, and move), we haven’t had the time to dwell on everything and everyone we’ll miss. But I know those tough days are not far ahead of us.

If you’re a praying person, I’d covet your prayers. In the meantime, you’ll find me singing Bilbo’s walking song (…this is the version sung in The Fellowship of the Ring as Bilbo leaves for Rivendell):

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

 

**Our busy summer will inevitably affect the frequency of my posting. I won’t lose touch with this site entirely. It’s been a great resource as a kind of commonplace notebook. But things will be slower here.

 

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.

SONNET 116

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.