We haven’t waxed poetic over Shakespeare recently, and I think it’s time to consider the prose of the master, both its meaning and its construction. To that end, I give you
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 fixèd 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 proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Sonnet 116 is typical of what we think of as a classic English sonnet. The English sonnet has three quatrains (verses), followed by a final rhyming couplet. It follows the typical rhyme scheme of iambic pentameter, which is a type of poetic meter: one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable.
The interpretation of this poem is open to many speculations, the most compelling of which I found in Cliffs Notes, and which I quote here:
Despite the confessional tone in this sonnet, there is no direct reference to the youth. The general context, however, makes it clear that the poet’s temporary alienation refers to the youth’s inconstancy and betrayal, not the poet’s, although coming as it does on the heels of the previous sonnet, the poet may be trying to convince himself again that “Now” he loves the youth “best.” Sonnet 116, then, seems a meditative attempt to define love, independent of reciprocity, fidelity, and eternal beauty: “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come.” After all his uncertainties and apologies, Sonnet 116 leaves little doubt that the poet is in love with love.
The experts at Shakespeare Online say:
Sonnet 116 is about love in its most ideal form. The poet praises 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 “ever-fix’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.
Five hundred years after his time on this earth, the Bard of Avon’s crafting of ideals and emotions into words evokes powerful feelings in the reader. He is immortal, because we hear his words and feel their impact.
The secret poet within me hopes to one day develop more poetic skill, whether it is writing free-verse, or crafting a more traditional rhyming style of prose. To that end, I practice writing poetry when I am in the mood, and read the masters, and attend local poetry-slams. It’s amazing, the talent in your local poetry groups.
Cliffs Notes, Sonnet 116 © 2016 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 116. Ed. Amanda Mabillard. Shakespeare Online. 8 Dec. 2012. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/116detail.html