Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare

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 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 prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Summary

This sonnet is supposed to be addressed to Shakespeare’s friend, the Earl of Southampton. He wrote this sonnet to emphasize the consistency of true love and friendship, when the Earl was presumably attracted towards the physical charms of a dark lady.

He begins by saying that true love or friendship never changes. If it happens to change or alter than it is not true love. If a lover leaves his beloved when she gets cold with the coming of age, then he is not a true lover. He compares love to the light house. The waves and sea storms come and strike against the light house but they fail to do any harm to it. It remains firm and continues to guide the ships. In the same way true friendship cannot be broken or shaken away by difficulties of life or other charming diversions. In the second metaphor Shakespeare compares true friendship to the polar star, which is unaffected by time and age and always guides the wandering sailors to come on the right path so that they reach at the desired place. In the same way true friendship remains constant and guides the loved one to come back to the right course of life, so as to be able to achieve happiness and the targets of life.

In the third quatrain, the poet hints to the attraction of his friend towards physical charm of a dark mistress. He speaks of the everlasting nature of true friendship which would not wither with time and age. Physical charms would go away with the age and thus the attraction would no longer remain in old age, but true love and friendship is immortal. It does not perish, time is personified here to show that it would easily cut the crop of physical beauty,but it cannot do any harm to true love or friendship, which have their basis in values and not charms. Thus it remains constant till the end of life.

In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare expresses his full faith in the philosophy of love stated in the three quatrains. He says that if his views on true love and friendship are proved wrong then he would conclude that no man ever loved in this world and he would give up all claims to be a poet. So he stresses that true love and friendship is forever.

Analysis

It is a typical English sonnet. It has three quatrains and a couplet. Its theme is permanence of love. The thought progresses step by step and concludes with the determined declaration in the couplet. This is the 116th sonnet of the154 sonnets addressed to a young man, ‘Let me not’ is addressed to the Youngman, who is supposed to be the Earl of Southampton.

In the sonnet Shakespeare speaks about his philosophy of love. It does not depend on the reaction of the loved one or the external factors. Time, place and physical constraints cannot alter the path of true friendship or love. It is said that Shakespeare was in love with a charming widow, referred to as Dark Mistress. She was physically very beautiful. Shakespeare’s friend and patron,the Earl of Southampton was also attracted towards her and turned away from the poet.

Through this sonnet, the poet assures his friend and patron of his constant friendship. He assures that his love is as fixed as a light house and as constant as the pole star and it would be so till his confirmed end. The poet is willing to stake the whole of his literary reputation if in any way his statement is proved wrong.

It is perhaps the most moving sonnet in English language. ‘Impediments’ recall Shakespeare’s – knowledge of the Prayer Book. Lines 7 and 8 show his knowledge of astrology. The rhyme scheme is ab ab, cd cd, ef ef, g g.

Theme

There are different shades of love. In this sonnet Shakespeare chooses philosophy and spiritual value of love to put forth his ideas. Time, place and human relations have their effect on every human activity. Shakespeare is of the opinion that time, place and other diversions like physical charms cannot change true love and friendship. True love triumphs over all hurdles and remains constant throughout life. Nothing can hamper the union of true lovers or friends. Although the body gets weak, is adversely affected by time and age,but love which is really true, remains constant and young as ever. This is an absolute truth.

Metaphor

Shakespeare uses metaphors in this sonnet to illustrate and emphasise his point of view. He compares true love or friends to the light house. Sea waves and violent sea storms attack the lighthouse every time, but it remains unmoved and constantly stands fixed. Like wise true love also suffers the vagaries of time and place, but remains fixed. It remains devoted to his lover, as the lighthouse remains faithful to its work of showing the right path to reach the target.In the same way true love guides a person to achieve target in life.

The second metaphor is of pole star. It shines the right path to those sailors who have caught the wrong path, so it brings them on the right path. In the same way love, brings a person on the right track of life.

Structural Analysis

Sonnet 116 is about love in its most ideal form. It is praising the glories of lovers who have come to each other freely, and enter into a relationship based on trust and understanding. The first four lines reveal the poet’s pleasure in love that is constant and strong, and will not “alter when it alteration finds.”The following lines proclaim that true love is indeed an “everfix’d mark”which will survive any crisis.

In lines 7-8, the poet claims that we may be able to measure love to some degree, but this does not mean we fully understand it. Love’s actual worth cannot be known – it remains a mystery. The remaining lines of the third quatrain (9-12), reaffirm the perfect nature of love that is unshakeable throughout time and remains so “ev’n to the edge of doom”, or death. In the final couplet, the poet declares that, if he is mistaken about the constant,unmovable nature of perfect love, then he must take back all his writings on love, truth, and faith. Moreover, he adds that, if he has in fact judged love inappropriately, no man has ever really loved, in the ideal sense that the poet professes. The details of Sonnet 116 are best described by Tucker Brooke in his acclaimed edition of Shakespeare’s poems:

In Sonnet 116, the chief pause in sense is after the twelfth line. Seventy-five percent of the words are monosyllables; only three contain more syllables than two; none belong in any degree to the vocabulary of ‘poetic’ diction.There is nothing recondite, exotic, or metaphysical in the thought. There are three run-on lines, one pair of double-endings. There is nothing to remark about the rhyming except the happy blending of open and closed vowels, and of liquids, nasals, and stops; nothing to say about the harmony except to point out how the fluttering accents in the quatrains give place in the couplet to the emphatic march of the almost unrelieved iambic feet. In short, the poet has employed one hundred and ten of the simplest words in the language and the two simplest rhyme-schemes to produce a poem which has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection.

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