Shakespeare Sonnet 116
The Sixteenth Century, The Early Seventeenth Centry, 2nd edition(New York: W. W. Nortion, 2000) is one of his most famous sonnets to conquer the subject of love. While there is much debate concerning the tone of this sonnet, Shakespeare’s words speak of transcendent love not very commonly considered in popular poetry at the time. He used the Petrarchan sonnet style in Old English popular around the time but certainly added a new twist of his own genius.
In theme Shakespeare had unique perceptions and experiences in his portrayal of love. The introduction of a young boy as the object of his affections and subject of sonnets 1-126 was perhaps not a common subject for other poets. Sonnet 116 falls into the section of sonnets of the boy, yet it does not quite fit the mold of the rest of his sonnets. In the sequence the surrounding, the sonnets highlight loves’ more deceptive qualities such as unfaithfulness and betrayal. The fallibility and physical matters pertaining to love are no longer considered in Sonnet 116, and a truer sort of transcendent and unconditional love emerges.
Unlike the popularized Petrarchan form of an octet followed by a sestet, Shakespeare’s 14 line sonnets are divided into three Sicilian quatrains and a couplet. The quatrains develop the metaphor and a couplet at the end that becomes a commentary. The masculine rhyme scheme follows the pattern ababcdcdefefgg and the meter is in the traditional iambic pentameter (10 syllables per line). The ideas flow and create a sense of urgency in this piece as phrasing does no clearly begin and end with each line.
The idea in first line that flows right into the next and there is a fluttering of accents. This creates a rapid delivery of words carried by the iambic feet. There is repetition in the alliteration with words such as “alters” and “alteration” or “remover” and “remove”. This also adds to the poems sense of flow and purposefulness. Each quatrain begins a new metaphor and the images are also strengthened in the following quatrains. The more dramatic volta of the sonnet begins with the final two lines with commentary that in this case does bring us to an ultimate conclusion.
Much is said in this sonnet using somewhat simple rather than flattering diction and most of the words are monosyllables. The sonnet opens speaking of true love between two people. The Imagery begins with the marriage alter itself. This creates a very Christian vision of man and wife. The love spoken of is “of true minds” and therefore a spiritual partnership rather than physical union. In the second line with “admit impediments” he calls to mind the words used in the Marriage ceremony from The Book of Common Prayer.
The mention of the word “alter” twice in the second line strengthens this image as well. The “marriage of true minds” becomes the subject which can be interpreted in differing ways leaving us with a somewhat vague impression. True love itself becomes without “impediments” and is free and clear of the need for any “alterations”. This idea of love’s constancy and reliability is continued in the following quatrain with the images of love as a lighthouse, “ever-fixed mark” and guiding “star to every wandring bark”.
The images of time, death and the compass speak of a constancy and reliability that love shall outlast. Shakespeare’s frequent references to time in his sonnets tend to bring careful consideration death and the threat of time itself. In Sonnet 116 however love is not threatened by any such thing, as it “bears it out, even to the edge of doom” in line 14 just before the Volta. In the final quatrain imagery connected with time and death’s” bending sickle”, which calculates as well with “his brief hours and weeks” though time still is not bound by such restraints.
There is some irony in the mention of the possibility of the poem not existing with the open ended commentary “I have never writ” In the final couplet the existence of the poetry itself is called into question although the poet’s certainty of the truth of his words becomes evident creating a sense of irony and an open ended conclusion. Love itself is the subject of the metaphor in this quintessential sonnet, in particular unconditional eternal love. The emotional union of marriage and the love of God are in comparison here. Frequently in Sonnet 116 true love appears as what it can outlast and simply what it is not.
The common trope of love as a guiding lighthouse or star is included in the second quatrain. We see a ship lost at sea, challenged by a tempest that it outlasts, as a metaphor for this undying and resilient love. Its image as an “ever fixed mark” marks the common them of love’s reliability. This also is an account of love’s incalculable worth who’s “worth’s unknown although its’ height be taken”. Throughout the sonnet , images of calculations of things such as time space distance and worth are mentioned, yet love transcends all calculation. Love’s transcendent qualities rise above the metaphor’s hemselves making this a very powerful sonnet. The unconventional love spoken of can perhaps lend itself the subversive tone in Sonnet 116. Opening with “ Let me not to the marriage of true minds” could take on a very different meaning without immediate continuation to the next line “admit impediments. ” It could perhaps also mean “ let me not” to this Christian ideal of marriage . This possibility creates a questionable tone. Which makes sense, when we consider how the love Shakespeare was speaking of, did not fit into the Elizabethan concept of what was acceptable.
The use of “Oh no! ” in line 3 as an exclamation, following the mention of admitting “impediments” suggest his forcefulness in defending his ideas of love of, perhaps as well as his love of the boy which would itself be an impediment. The rejection of this type of love in Elizabethan times gives the poet the chance to speak of the nature of love itself as transcendent and eternal. The love that extends itself beyond these sorts of physical matters is not without its challenges. This gloomy tone expressed the sometimes cold language.
The feelings evoked by the threats of “tempests” and “the edge of doom” (judgment day) and all the “alterations” of time does not allow the idea of desperation to totally subside. A somewhat distant and unpleasant tone comes even from the comparison of love to a star. It becomes a remote image, somewhat self-contained who’s true “worth’s unknown”. The fact that love cannot be comprehended however does not diminish its powers. There is irony in the final commentary as well. The improbability of error in Shakespeare’s poetry is proven by the existence of the poetry itself. Yet this is still left up to question.
The possibility also exists that “no man ever loved” in the this way as well. In this way the poem becomes a subject of metaphor just as love itself. The somewhat subversive tone is carried out through conclusion. Sonnet 116 goes beyond the Petrarchan dilemma of unrequited passionate love and considers the possibility of true loves eternal nature. It also goes beyond conventional as a poem concerning the sacrament of marriage and the love of god while being directed to a young man. Although it utilizes common tropes and simple language his unique passion and cleverness developed a fresh perspective.
His use of phrasing an punctuation creates a dramatic tone of voice. His concern with what love is not becomes definition by restraint. Irony is layered throughout. The images and metaphors weave a tight tapestry and fluttering accents and alliteration and run-ons create a lyrical expressiveness. Shakespeare quite flawlessly recreates this revolutionary idea of love in the form of a sonnet. Its wide popularity may be a testament to nature of its form.