Sonnet 116

Text — From Observation to Argument — Essay #1 + Scratch outline — Essay #2 + Scratch Outline

 Text

Sonnet 116

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 wandering bark,*          
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.  

*tempests = storms  bark = ship  edge of doom = Day of Judgment

 

From Observation to Argument

In writing an argument, you may need to start with an observation, yet make sure to go beyond that. Try to see more deeply into the text. Try to explain how the writer achieves a particular effect or explores a particular meaning. If you're stuck, try explaining the way one of the six categories could be applied to the poem. For instance, what is the spatial set-up? How is the spatial set-up important to the theme?

Below are examples of thesis statements that 1. merely observe what's in the text, 2. explain how the text works, and 3. explain how the text works and advance insightful angles of interpretation.

1. The great English Renaissance playwright William Shakespeare writes about love.

Shakespeare defines constant love.

Shakespeare gives a definition of love and then gives some analogies.

2. Shakespeare uses definition and analogy to illustrate the nature of true love.

Shakespeare uses definition and analogy to argue that true love transcends space and time.

3. Shakespeare’s sonnet is about true love, yet instead of using emotional love-scenarios to make his point, he uses abstract definitions and analogies.

Shakespeare’s use of abstraction (rather than emotional real-life scenarios) suggests that constant love is beyond this human world and that it may also be an exaggeration or type of madness.

 

Essay #1 

In “Sonnet 116,” Shakespeare divides his poem into four parts. In the first three parts (all of which are quatrains with the same rhyme scheme) he offers various serious definitions of love — at first using negative definition and then using two extended metaphors (or conceits). In the last part (a couplet) he steps away from the seriousness and plays what seems to be a tricky verbal game that is not easy to understand. His definitions and analogies may be playful and complex, yet they may also be a trap of sorts.

The first four lines use playful repetition to give us a negative definition of love. He repeats words in various ways for different reasons: “love is not love which” redefines love; “alters when it alteration finds” uses “alters” as a possible alteration in sentiment and “alteration” as a possible alteration in circumstances. Because his point is vague, it can be applied to all sorts of situations—from still loving another when they get older and less attractive, to still loving another when they are in altered circumstances, such as economic straights. Still using repetition — “the remover to remove” — he argues that nothing can remove the love between true lovers — whether this “remover” is a circumstance or a rival.

In the next two quatrains Shakespeare uses two complex analogies, one spatial and one temporal. In the spatial one, he compares love to a fixed star — like the Pole Star — which can help boats in a tempest find their way to port. The analogy here is to a person who is lost in some way (depressed, upset, confused, a failure in some enterprise, etc.) and who is brought back to a normal state because of the unconditional love someone supplies. In the second analogy, Shakespeare compares love to the soul, which outlasts the physical body: even after Time has destroyed youthful beauty (indicated by “rosy lips and cheeks”), one still loves the person; and even after time passes and one dies (indicated by “the edge of Doom”), one still loves the person. In this second analogy he asserts that love transcends time, just as in the first analogy he asserts that love transcends space.

Shakespeare’s poem is, for a love poem, rather extreme in its logic and abstraction. In some ways it is close to “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” in which John Donne idealizes love by drawing analogies between love and objects (compasses) and cosmic spaces (the “trepidation of the spheres”). Likewise, Shakespeare uses a sickle’s compass and the space between the pole star and a ship on the ocean. This is very different in style and focus from another of Shakespeare’s sonnets, where he says, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” In that sonnet he rejects cosmic comparisons and other abstractions and idealizations, in favour of a more realistic appreciation of love.

The final couplet may be a trap of sorts, extending the extremity of his previous statements into a sly indication that everything he says is a bit overblown. He states that if all these wonderful things he says about love are not true, then he never wrote, which he obviously did. He then adds, “nor no man ever loved,” which suggests that this definition of constant love may especially apply while one is in love, i.e. while one is in a sort of madness in which love seems both infinite and eternal.

Scratch Outline

His definitions and analogies may be playful and complex, yet they may also be a trap of sorts.

The first four lines use playful repetition to give us a negative definition of love.

In the next two quatrains Shakespeare uses two complex analogies, one spatial and one temporal.

Shakespeare’s poem is, for a love poem, rather extreme in its logic and abstraction.

The final couplet may be a trap of sorts, extending the extremity of his previous statements into a sly indication that everything he says is a bit overblown.

(90 words)

Essay #2

Sweet Words of Logic

It’s one a.m. and you finally slip your arm around her, pretty sure she just needs to hear a few poetic words. So you put on your huskiest bedroom voice, and tell her that her beautiful eyes are concentric within a convex aperture, her silky hair is like a graph with parallel black lines, and her love is not true if she denies compliance with your logic. Next morning you curse Shakespeare, because you modelled your seduction on one of his sonnets — number 116 to be exact. So, you take another look at the sonnet, just to make sure you got it right. To your horror, you find that this isn’t the type of poem you should have used to seduce anyone. While Shakespeare’s sonnet extolls the virtues of true love, it is a bit odd in that he uses logic and analogy rather than emotion and human context. 

The first stanza is like an argument a philosopher or lawyer might make, with its abstract and logical definition of what love is and is not. The poet uses abstract notions like “the remover,” which makes the poem different from the usual love poem, which would use words like “sweet lips,” “soft tongue,” or “bright eyes.” (Those would have been the right words to use last night!) If there is a woman being written to here, the poet doesn’t give her a name. He seems more interested in advancing a philosophical argument, which goes from defining love (lines 1-4), to giving analogies (lines 5-12), to concluding that his argument is not “false” (line 13).

After defining love, the poet uses analogies which are powerful and wide-ranging, yet do not have any personal element. In exemplifying what love is, he doesn’t talk about his feelings, or his personal experience. Instead, he gives us rather cosmic spatial and temporal analogies: love is like a star (probably the pole star) that guides people (who are like ships or “barks”) through the ‘hazardous seas of life’; love is not subject to Father Time or Death, but lasts to the “edge of Doom” (eternity in the Christian scheme of things). Avoiding clichés such as ‘I will love you till the end of time,’ he links the figure of Father Time to the negative definition of love he started the poem with: old age and death may be ‘alterations’ or ‘removers’ (which cut down the “rosy lips and cheeks” of youth), yet he assures us that they have no effect on true, spiritual love.

Shakespeare’s sonnet is a strange one, for in it the poet declares his deep love in a language that at times borders on mathematics and cosmology. He refers to alteration, removal, proof, a fixed mark (which can be measured by sextants), and "the edge of Doom" (a temporal complement to the star whose “height be taken”). Shakespeare is making a general argument here, one that is far from the real-life context of Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, or The Taming of the Shrew, where characters have names and passions, families and frustrations.

The final couplet may suggest that this inapplicable language about love is in fact overblown, and perhaps a type of madness. He suggests that everyone uses such language when they are infatuated: if his words are not true, then he never wrote the poem; since he clearly wrote the poem, then his words must be true; we assume he has loved and hence his words must be true. He also suggests that anyone in love is unable to everyone This point would be in line with his other very famous sonnet, 130, where he presents his reader with a list of overblown metaphors to describe his love, and then rejects them as inapplicable, asserting that a real woman is superior to imaginary comparisons.

In “Sonnet 116” Shakespeare gives a deep yet abstract definition of love. His message (true love overcomes all) and some of his phrases (such as “rosy lips and cheeks”) might be used by a lover, yet the language of the poem is most often logical, analogical, even mathematical. Indeed, Shakespeare’s rhetorical aim seems more argumentative than expressive or personal. It is certainly not the type of language you should use on a date! Imagine substituting You have such soft lips with I love your tuberculum labii superioris. Or I will never stop loving you with Interest will accrue on our mutual satisfaction. If you make this sort of verbal miscalculation, you might then be left — alone — to calculate the water pressure of a cold shower.

 

Scratch Outline 

Sweet Words of Logic

While Shakespeare’s sonnet extolls the virtues of true love, it is a bit odd in that he uses logic and analogy rather than emotion and human context. 

The first stanza is like an argument a philosopher or lawyer might make, with its abstract and logical definition of what love is and is not.  

After defining love, the poet uses analogies which are powerful and wide-ranging, yet do not have any personal element.

Shakespeare’s sonnet is a strange one, for in it the poet declares his deep love in a language that at times borders on mathematics and cosmology.

The final couplet may suggest that this inapplicable language about love is in fact overblown, and perhaps a type of madness.

(119 words)

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