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.
Sonnet 116 is one of the most well known sonnets and a good introduction to the others. It’s relatively straightforward, yet full of the wit and intelligence that is typical of the sonnets and foreshadows the writing of the metaphysicals such as Donne and Marvel.
The poem is in three quatrains (4 line sections) followed by a rhyming couplet which concludes the poem and emphasises or reinforces the idea. A sonnet of this type is usually called a Shakespearean sonnet as the form seems to have been invented by him. It gives the writer the opportunity to develop a separate idea in each quatrain and to come to a conclusion which is emphasised by the rhyme of the final couplet.
In Sonnet 116 the first quatrain introduces the main idea of the poem: there is such a thing as the marriage of two minds – such a thing as true love. Shakespeare admits that true love exists – and that it is not simply physical – it’s a marriage of true minds. He will not allow any impediment to this idea – he won’t impede it or stop it in any way. The first quatrain goes on to explain more about what love is, or in fact, what it isn’t!!
The repetition, love is not love is the first of three repetitions in this section of the poem. They are used to develop the strong rhythms of the quatrain, and to emphasise the key points. The first of these, love is not love may seem odd at first sight. Why is Shakespeare telling us what love is not? It’s also paradoxical. How can love not be love? Of course Shakespeare goes on to explain, but at first glance this paradox is enough to stop the reader in their tracks, to ask them to think again about what love is. It is a puzzle, the first inkling of the wit or cleverness that Shakespeare brings to this sonnet.
Notice the enjambement used in this section of the poem. No lines are end stopped. Shakespeare strides forwards boldly and powerfully, with a strong rhythm – most clearly in the third line with its regular iambic beat. There are few pauses, and the rhythm communicates a sense of power and purpose. In the first quatrain Shakespeare tells us that love never alters – it does not bend. He asserts this powerfully.
In contrast to this first, the second quatrain does go on to tell us what love is. In this quatrain Shakespeare uses the sustained metaphor of a ship, or bark. The ship may face storms and tempests but love is the star that guides it. Love is what holds us on our course: it sustains us throughout the difficulties of life. It’s worth’s unknown – it’s priceless, beyond value – though we can see where it is – his height be taken. It’s typical of Shakespeare, and of poetry, to use natural images such as these to express complex ideas. It would be wrong to explain them in too much detail – best let the beauty and romance of the image work in your own mind – the star, the storm, the ship – the dangers of the ocean and the beauty, the illumination of love. And of course what an apt image for the age of exploration when Drake and Raleigh sailed round the world and lands new to Europeans were being discovered.
The third quatrain consists of two ideas. It opens with an even more powerful statement: Love’s not Time’s fool. The use of abstract nouns is sometimes weak but here the personification of time and love adds a universal meaning to the poem and takes us beyond love into considerations of life and death, the fleeting and ephemeral nature of life and beauty, and the eternal quality of love. The word fool is dismissive, condescending, judgemental. Shakespeare has strong views about this. The word itself, fool, is short and quickly spoken, cast aside almost though at the same time we dwell on the long vowel sound so we can savour the poets dismissal in this sharp insult.
In a similar way conventional beauty – rosy lips and cheeks – is dismissed in a brief description that looks just at the surface and contrasts this superficial beauty to the bending sickle’s compass – a much more complex and threatening idea expressed in more complex vocabulary – a more serious idea. In the same way the simple hours and weeks is contrasted to the much more foreboding doom with its long, sonorous vowel sound and its ominous meaning.
In the final rhyming couplet Shakespeare is much more concise. He could be in conversation with the reader. It’s simple and blunt, down to earth, suggesting that what he says is only common sense, obvious, everyday, matching the colloquial use of language.
Perhaps this is the most striking thing about Sonnet 116. Shakespeare’s language throughout is simple, conversational. Some vocabulary is archaic – old fashioned – words like bark and tempest – but apart from the odd word – impediment perhaps – he uses everyday language, expresses himself in simple words – though the ideas are complex and far reaching, philosophical and universal, idealistic maybe to us in a world where divorce is commonplace, and serial monogamy apparently common.