On Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXVI”

With Sonnet CXVI, William Shakespeare refuses to admit that anything can change or stand in the way of true love. The setting of this sonnet gives the impression that the poet has been engaged in a lively discussion regarding the meaning and character of love. When pressed to agree that surely love is a fickle and inconstant thing, changing with the mood or inclination of the lover, and that so many of life’s circumstances must work against love to overthrow its success, the author begins his reply with what can be described as mild indignance; refusing to admit that anything could successfully be an impediment to the “marriage of true minds”. I found the words “true minds” to be an interesting choice. It signifies to me that Shakespeare is describing a greater love than merely the attractions felt by the flesh, a marriage of minds, rather than of bodies. Speaking in first person singular, as he does throughout the sonnet, he begins in the first quatrain by describing what may incorrectly pass for love, and then goes on in the second and third quatrain to describe what he supposes love to be.

As Shakespeare begins to describe what may incorrectly pass for love, his tone changes to that of mild sarcasm as he condescends to answer the person who has attempted to tarnish Love’s reputation. He explains as if it were obvious, that Love does not change just because anyone or anything else has changed. Love does not conspire to thwart its own ends by participating in actions against itself; it does not stop because its affections are lost or not returned. With these two descriptions the poet has personified Love, and continues to utilize this conceit throughout the rest of the sonnet.

Beginning the second quatrain I sense yet another change of tone, this one of smug assurance as the remarks describing what love truly is begins with the exclamation. “O, no! It is an ever-fixèd mark”. If we want to assume that the naval metaphor used later in line seven is also applied here, the “ever fixèd mark” may be understood to be a lighthouse (Nazir), which is built to withstand the strongest hurricanes yet still provide a reckoning point for the mariner. Love therefore is sublime, able to withstand all assaults against it. More than this, the author now uses rhetorical hyperbole by declaring love to be a star, a universal constant. This is the climax of the sonnet. In sharp contrast he juxtaposes the idea of the “wand’ring bark” “a small ship; in earlier times, a general term for all sailing vessels of small size (OED)”. Literally the outside covering of a tree, harkening back even further than Shakespeare’s time to an age when men hollowed out canoes from tree trunks with stone adzes. But here, the bark becomes a metaphor for the human condition, each spirit confined within the vessel of its own body, alone in the sea of time, desperate but for the hope that true love may be sighted on the horizon. Love may be a star of unknown worth, but obviously it must be of immeasurable value for who can make his way without it?

Now that the point has been made so strongly, Shakespeare seems to take a more intimate tone with the person he has been addressing. I can imagine him putting his arm around the fellow, as if to now share some private details of Love’s personality, and of Love’s thoughts regarding one of his regular adversaries, Time. The poet reaffirms the statements that he has made in the first quatrain while specifically naming Time, also personified, as the culprit. It is Time who removes the rosy allure from lips and cheeks as they come within his “bending sickle’s compass”. The poet links the fourth and tenth line with the word “bending”. Here it is used as a participial adjective meaning “curved” and the word “compass” is used as a verb, describing the arc that is made by a sickle when it is used to mow something down, a sheave of wheat for example, or in this case the bloom of youth (OED). It is also interesting to note that a person using a sickle must bend down and grasp the sheaf close to the ground, and then bend even lower to cut beneath where they have grasped. Love is not fooled by this theft of outward appearance by Time. We must remember that this is marriage of true minds and not just frail bodies. To reinforce this, the author again links lines three and eleven with the word “alters” as Love scoffs at Time, discounting his ages and eons as mere “hours and weeks”. Love knows that eternity is not an interminable length of years, but rather it is the absence of Time. For this reason Love is willing to “bear it out even to the end of doom”. Here the words “bear it out” mean to “bear bravely” maintaining composure in the face of death (OED). I sense a tone of admiration of Love’s dogged endurance in the poet’s voice. Time may triumph over flesh, but finally, love will triumph over all (Martin).

His argument now made and remade, the poet’s tone is once again confrontational as he dares his listener to prove him wrong. Should this be possible, the poet says he will deny having ever written anything of value, but more than that, he again uses hyperbole to reinforce the adamancy of his philosophical position, suggesting that if his words are untrue, then all the men who have ever lived did not know the meaning of love and their attempts to love have therefore been in vain. This final line “I never writ” so clearly identifies this work as the personal testimony of the poet. When I declaim the words of Sonnet CXVI, I feel that I am speaking them on his behalf. There is for me also the unspoken question put to the listener, “Do you not agree?” “Will you then love this way, without reserve, and in the face of all obstacles remain constant in your love?”

Works Cited

Martin. [363] Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet CXVI). Internet website. http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/363.html

Nazir, Cassini. Essay on Sonnet CXVI, Internet website. http://www.utdallas.edu/~cassini/papers/Sonnet%20116%20Paper.doc

OED. Oxford English dictionary (Online). Oxford ; New York, N.Y. 1989. Internet website. http://dictionary.oed.com

Sonnet CXVI
1. Let me not to the marriage of true minds
2. Admit impediments. Love is not love
3. Which alters when it alteration finds,
4. Or bends with the remover to remove:
5. O, no! it is an ever-fixèd mark,
6. That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
7. It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
8. Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.
9. Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
10. Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
11. Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
12. But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
13. If this be error and upon me proved,
14. I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

About Louis William Rose

“I am an advocate for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a lifelong student of parliamentary procedure and political process. He has served as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004, with an additional two years of graduate work in political philosophy. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and a Florida Master Naturalist and guide. He has two sons, Edward, a hydroponic farmer in the panhandle of Florida, and Alexander, a successful real estate developer.
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