Photo: Paul Hatfield
This is certainly one of the most famous of all of the Sonnets, and justly so. But notice how it isn’t actually addressed to anyone. Rather, it reads more like an essay cast in sonnet form. As far as the ideal of love is concerned, the poet here presents it as an unshakeable absolute (rather like Troilus’s understanding of love). But there’s a sense in which the sonnet over-emphasizes these qualities. The couplet allows for the whole edifice to crumble and for love to become something much more earthy and fallible (which love is, isn’t it)? But the locution of the ideal presents the poet at the height of his powers, for example the musical sibilance of line 10’s ‘sickle’s compass come’. Since Sonnet 116 invokes the marriage service (‘lawful impediment’), I couldn’t resist illustrating it with this splendid photograph of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, taken the other day by my colleague Paul Hatfield.
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-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring barque,
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.
Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 116 read by Geoff Barton, the Headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds. He used to be Head of English at my school up in York.
You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.