Shakespeares sonnets Sonnet 116 Let me not to the marriage of true minds William

Shakespeare (1599) In this sonnet, the speaker tries to describe a love that is so strong that it can act as a model for true married love. Interestingly, the description begins with an acknowledgment that real love exists in "the marriage of true minds" (l. 1), and in order for the speaker to acknowledge this kind of love, he refuses to allow "impediments" (l. 2). This last word is one used in the marriage ceremony at the point where the minister asks if anyone knows of any reason to prevent the marriage from happening—for example, one of the parties may already be married. Both the cleric and the speaker are concerned with truth, then, in the legal sense of allowing the marriage to occur as well as in the truth of the love between the two partners in the union. The phrase "let me not" (l. 1) indicates that the speaker is taking a vow or promising truthfully. But here the speaker is more concerned with the marriage of the couple's "minds" than with their bodies. This kind of love is truly an unusual sort. The love the speaker writes of is immutable (unchangeable), no matter what it encounters. It does not alter "when it alteration finds" (l. 3), nor does it accept the influence of time—"the remover" (l. 4)—to change the love in any way for the worse.

The love described in this poem is definitely not changeable; it is "an ever fixed mark" (l. 5), an immutable, fixed point in the changeable ocean, like a lighthouse or a beacon, which is never "shaken" (l. 6) but guides sailors to safety, even during huge storms, or "tempests" (l. 6). This love is also like a particular star—perhaps Polaris, the pole star or North Star—by which ships ("barques," 1. 7) that have wandered from their course can adjust it. The actual composition ("worth," l. 8) of the star may not be known, but its height above the horizon has been charted ("taken," l. 8) with a quadrant or sextant so that the captain of the ship can plot a safe course and cease wandering.

In the third quatrain, the speaker brings the poem back to an examination of love and time, and he states that true love is not the "fool" (l. 9) or plaything, of time, even though lips and cheeks—once rosy in youth—are the victim of Time's "sickle" (l. 10). Here the poet conjures up an image of Father Time with a sickle (rather than a scythe) that he uses figuratively to indicate the power of Time, who works like a harvester to cut down not only the youth or the aged, but especially lovers. The word compass (l. 10) refers to the range of the sickle, but it can also call to mind the nautical imagery in the second quatrain, for a compass allows a sailor to plot a safe course for the vessel. Even though time may have a negative effect on the youth and beauty of the lovers, their love "alters not" (l. 11) over the passage of time and continues until "the edge of doom" (l. 12), or "doomsday," the last day of the world. The speaker then indicates that if he is in error about this description of love, then his writing is untrue and no one has ever loved. What is recorded is deemed true not only in terms of the speaker's skill in description, but in all lovers' experiences throughout time.

See also Shakespeare, William; Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).

Theodora A. Jankowski

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