There be dragons!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sonnet 116 (a blog for Ben)


  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-fixed 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 height 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.

(William Shakespeare)

I agree that one reading of the poem is an honest analysis of true love. Unfortunately, I have never found a passage of Shakespeare that is entirely honest; he is always wearing a mask and always has something up his sleeve. Consequently, this poem, which seems like a straightforward proclamation of the steadfastness of love probably is too good to be true. He does the same thing in Romeo & Juliet, offering what looks like a great romance but loaded with problems that indicate the opposite of real love. Here there are numerous ambiguities, subtle references, and structural alterations that indicate if nothing else a difficulty in the poem.

First, the English sonnet normally has in the third quatrain a complication of the subject introduced in the first two quatrains. What is the complication? There is none (apparently) - not even in the last bit of the poem. The normal indicator of complication "but" is in the 12th line at the end of the third quatrain. If the turn exists at the beginnig of the third quatrain then our complication of the discourse is that Love is not Time's fool - which means what? The Fool was subordinate to the King so that Love is the King and Time is the fool (instead of the other way around). But Shakespeare who wrote this poem also wrote "King Lear" - a tragic play in which the King, Lear, is imprisoned by his daughters for being foolish in his actions and the Fool is seen as far more free and wise than the king. Moreover, during the play King and Fool trade places and so represent the same thing in different postures. If this is so (and to an audience familiar with Lear it seems to be an intentional comparison) is the comparison supposed to be between the foolishness of Love and the kingliness of Time? Does Time rule over us? Is Love a foolish thing (b/c it certainly does make men foolish as Mercutio says and Iago attests)? Or are Love and Time the same thing?

Second, there is a frequent ambiguity to the use of pronouns; the "it" in lines 2,4&6 seemingly references to "love". But then what is the antecedent of "his" in line 7,9&10 ? The Star? Love? Time? If the "his" in 7 refers to the Polar Star then the worth of the star is unknown but his height is taken; meaning, we can measure the thing empirically but don't actually know what it is worth. Thus the Pole Star's attributes are identical to Love's and the "his" could reference either. If the "his" in 10 refers to "Time" that makes sense - but the ambiguity suggests that the sickle belongs to Love. Same with the "his" in 11 which seems to refer to Time since "brief hours and weeks" is the auspice of Time. But Love too is brief so the line could mean that Love does change in the short time we know of it on earth. This ambiguity is particularly pointed in the 12th line where the antecedent of "it" is completely obscure. What is born out to the edge of doom? Love? Time? It?

Finally, Shakespeare is a master of the language. Nowhere else in his corpus of works is there ever so seemingly straightforward and honest a proclamation. Also, nowhere else are there so many ambiguities, vagueries, mistakes and errors. Consequently, the last couplet can be read in two different ways.

If this be error and upon me proved,

What is the "this" to which he refers? The proclamation of love? The construct of the poem prior? the language itself? If it is the proclamation of love he has suggested hitherto that love doesn't ever change; that it is constant; that it looks upon the tumult of human life from a remote and aloof position similar to a star looking down upon earth. But this isn't right about love and Shakespeare knew it. Human love isn't constant as he proved in "Much Ado About Nothing" and "The Merchant of Venice" and "Romeo & Juliet" and "Othello" and numerous other works. Moreover, if he is referring to Love as a god or The God he seems to be describe an aloof and impersonal god that remains utterly unmoved by the sorrows and passions of human existence. But his whole religion of Incarnation, redemption, suffering and resurrection speaks contrary to this. Even if he is correct in assessing human love and divine love as unchanging and inflexible he would be well aware of the maxim that living things alter and change and dead things don't. Consequently the love he is describing isn't truly living but dead. Is he in error here? Is this the "this" to which he refers in line 13? If the "this" is the construct of the poem, it has already been shown that structurally the poem doesn't follow the normal modus operandi of a sonnet. There is no apparent complication, there is no consistent poetic conceit, there are numerous switches in the rhythmic pattern during the poem. So the poem is itself somewhat in error. The language is intentionally ambiguous and hard to fathom; it too is in error. The "this" is, consequently, proven to be in error.

Given this proof, the line "I never writ, nor no man ever loved" adopts a knew meaning. Is "I never writ" an excuse? An escape? A Thomistic "burn it; it's all straw" statement? And has anyone ever really loved? Do we really know what love is? Do we really want to know what love is? Or do we only think we know what love is and desire love as long as it makes us feel good and gives us pleasure? Complicated. Brilliant.


  1. I just noticed on another read, the line
    "bending sickle's compass come"
    has a neat twist to it. The repetition of the "s" sound and the hard "k" sound mimics the sound of cutting wheat; the farmer bends down and ssssssssssic sssssssssic ssssssssssssic.

  2. Nota bene: the opening line, which is expected to be in iambic pentameter, isn't. Instead we have
    Let me not to the mar-riage of true minds

    If the theme of the poem is supposed to be the constancy of true love, why are there so many inconsistencies in the poem beginning with that opening line?