- In Sonnet 116, the speaker states that true spiritual love never changes, defies the tests of time and stands firm in the face of challenges.
- If it is proved wrong, it would mean he is no poet and no man has ever loved.
Sonnet 116 – Line by Line Explanation
Lines 1 – 4
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.
In the opening line of the poem the speaker says that there is nothing that can stand between true and sincere lovers. Marriage here signifies union, friendship and understanding. It is the marriage of true minds and not of bodies. So, the poet doesn’t agree (admit) that any barrier or hurdle (impediments) can come in the way of true love.
The speaker further adds that it is not true love which changes with changing situations (alteration). True love or spiritual love does not submit to the power of its annihilator. If a remover tries to remove the poles of love, true love will not let it do so. It will overcome any hurdle that comes in its way.
Lines 5 – 8
O no! it is an ever-fixed 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.
The speaker declares that love is an “ever-fixed mark” that never changes with time or changing situations. True love is constant and firm. Here the speaker employs two metaphors (indirect comparison) to clarify the same.
Firstly, he compares true love to a lighthouse. Though the lighthouse faces storms (tempests) in the sea, it stands firm and is never shaken. In the same way, true love is not shaken with the difficulties and challenges of life.
Secondly, the speaker compares true love to the pole star. The pole star serves as an infallible guide to every ship (bark) in the uncharted oceans. True love also guides lovers in life. The depth of true love, like the full value and potentialities of the guiding star can never be completely acknowledged. The pole star and ideal love both are beyond human estimation. The value of these two cannot be measured even if we come to know their heights.
Lines 9 – 12
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.
In this stanza the speaker says that true love is not time’s slave. In other words, it does not change with the passage of time. He admits that the outward beauty of the human body does fade away with time. The rosy lips and cheeks of the beloved will surely lose their vibrant colours as time passes. However, the small hours and weeks of time can’t encompass the vastness of true love.
True love will remain unchanged in the face of every trick employed by time. It will fight time until doomsday sees the end of time.
Lines 13 – 14
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
In this concluding couplet, the speaker makes a bold claim. He says that if anybody can prove him wrong in his assessment of true love, he will let go of his identity as a poet and admit to have never written a poem, and no man has ever loved in this world.
Sonnet 116 – Into Details
Sonnet No. 116 is one of the most famous sonnets of William Shakespeare. It was written somewhere in the 1590s and was published in a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1609. In this collection, a total of 154 sonnets were published. Among these sonnets, the first 126 sonnets are believed to be addressed to a young man called Mr. W. H. Sonnet 116 is also addressed to the man with whom the speaker is in deep love.
Shakespeare’s sonnets address a wide range of themes ranging from love, beauty, time and jealousy to mortality and infidelity. Here, in Sonnet 116 the poet discusses the immortality of true love. This love can be called spiritual or platonic love.
In this sonnet, the poet addresses a male beloved and tries to prove the superiority of love over time and tides of life. It may mean, he will not let any custom or societal norm become a hindrance to his communion with his beloved.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet No 116 provides little information about its setting. We can assume after reading this poem, especially from the mention of the north star guiding the ships, that the poem is set in the Renaissance period. Basically, the poem has no specific setting because it talks about a general, universal statement about love – a statement which will always be true in any setting.
The first line of the sonnet “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” serves as the title, as is the case for all Shakespearean sonnets. In this poem, the poet-speaker states his view about love and declares it to be an everlasting force which lives beyond time. He asserts in the very first line that true love, which is the marriage of true minds, cannot find any impediment or obstruction and is eternal. So, the title truly reflects the theme of the entire sonnet and is thus just and apt.
Form, Meter & Rhyme Scheme
Sonnet 116 is written in the form of a typical English or Shakespearean sonnet. The sonnet consists of three quatrains (four-line stanza) and a concluding couplet (two lines). The quatrains state the characteristics of true love while the couplet stresses on the authenticity of the arguments presented in the quatrains. The language of Shakespearean sonnets including the present poem is highly concise and structured. Like all Shakespearean sonnets, the rhyme scheme goes ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
The meter used in the poem is roughly iambic pentameter which consists of five iambic (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) feet in each line. Only a few lines are perfect though in this aspect. Most lines have some exceptions or irregularities.
It is | the star | to eve | ry wand‘ | ring bark
Whose worth’s | unknown, | although | his height | be taken.