Sonnets for Advent 18: Sonnet 116

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Photo: Paul Hatfield

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.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Andrea Campana

    Sonnet 116 can only be understood in the light of Robert Southwell’s Elegia VIII. The Jesuit Southwell ponders the reciprocal and undying nature of love, exploring the mystery of what happens to the love and lover created in space and time after one spouse dies. The surviving spouse says he will not think of love and lover as passing away but instead will recognize the single love of a twin heart and two hearts located in one. The Jesuit eases into the realm of Ignatian spirituality and says the love has not been evacuated but has been sublimated so that mind and heart, body and soul are fused into one. “Heart presses with heart and brings about a marriage of the mind,” Southwell writes. What Shakespeare refutes in Sonnet 116 is the power of the temporal authority of the political realm to destroy the power of Ignatian-inspired love. He affirms the undying power of divine love over political might. In the second quatrain, Shakespeare expresses divine love as above the grasp of Time and death, citing the imagery of the Virgin Mary from the writings of St. Bernard. St. Bernard describes the Virgin Mary as “the splendid, radiant star set as a necessary beacon above the spacious sea of life.” He urges those floating on treacherous seas to turn their eyes toward the “light of this guiding star, if you do not wish to be submerged in the tempest.” Mary is known as Stella Maris, or Star of the Sea. In further evidence Shakespeare alludes to Mary, he uses the verb “bend” in connection with the image of the bent rainbow; “rainbow” was the word used by the Jesuit mission superior Henry Garnet to refer to the Virgin Mary in his “Society of the Rosary.” Garnet describes Mary as a rainbow–”this bow is bent upwards to heaven”–against heresy. Shakespeare says his love for Mary does not bend, alter, or change after the remover (the Queen as synonymous with the force of death) desecrates the shrines of Mary and executes Southwell. Shakespeare’s love remains unaltered, despite the Queen’s actions.

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