Sonnet 116 Summary
The poet makes his point clear from line 1: true love always perseveres, despite any obstacles that may arise. He goes on to define love by what it doesn’t do, claiming that it stays constant, even though people and circumstances may change. Love never dies, even when someone tries to destroy it. Rather than being something that comes and goes, love is eternal and unchanging – so much so that the poet compares it to the North Star, which never moves in the sky and guides lost ships home. This metaphorical star is mysterious and perhaps incomprehensible, even though we can chart its location.
Moving on to a new image, love isn’t at the beck and call of time (or time’s consequences, age and death); mortality isn’t an issue for true love, which doesn’t fade even when youth and beauty disappear. Love doesn’t change as the days go by; rather, it remains strong until the lover’s dying day (or beyond…chew on that for a while).
Finally, the poet stakes his own reputation on this definition, boldly claiming that if anyone can prove him wrong, he’ll eat his words. That is to say, if this idea of love turns out to be wrong, then he’ll take back everything he wrote and it’ll be as though it never existed. Furthermore, if this specific portrayal of love is somehow proved to be the wrong one, then nobody, as far as the poet is concerned, has ever loved at all.
Quatrain 1 (lines 1-4)
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
- This poem opens with one of the most famous lines ever: "Let me not to the marriage of two minds/ Admit impediments…" Sure, it sounds nice – but what does it mean? Is he talking about a real marriage? If so, who’s getting married? What impediments? Gaaah!
- Yes, there are a lot of questions just in this one declaration – but relax, we’ll walk you through it.
- First of all, the poem alludes to marriage, and to the actual marriage ceremony, which remains basically unchanged; the word "impediment" is lifted straight from the official Church of England wedding service (you might recognize its modern equivalent, the whole "speak now or forever hold your peace" section of weddings, so frequently used and abused in romantic comedies).
- However, don’t get all crazy and start throwing rice or anything – this poem isn’t actually talking about a real marriage.
- The "marriage of true minds" is a metaphor for true love. We’re not sure if this refers specifically to platonic love or sexual love; instead, we are intended to see it as capital-L, ideal, perfect Love.
- Note that the Poet uses the word "minds" instead of anything more base, like "hearts" or (heaven forbid!) "bodies." This is to let us know that this perfect love is the partnership of two thinking, willing individuals, who aren’t simply driven by emotions or hormones.
- Finally, the truly genius part of this opening statement comes in the enjambment between "minds" and "Admit" – by putting the idea of obstruction in the second line, the Poet doesn’t even admit the word "impediment" into the same line as the phrase "the marriage of true minds."
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
- Here, we see love defined by what it’s not.
- The repetition here is very significant – and very confusing to puzzle out. Let’s tackle the first phrase: apparently, real love doesn’t change ("alter") under different circumstances. That is to say, even if the lovers themselves change, or if the world around them does, true love remains constant.
- The doubled "alter" and "alteration" pairing reminds us of what a less worthy sentiment, which we might think of as "not-love," is like – it’s changeable, fickle, and all too easily altered.
- So what about the next phrase? What does all that "bends with the remover to remove" business mean? Basically, it makes the above point even more vehemently, claiming that even when someone tries to "remove" affection, real love doesn’t give in and disappear. Faced with difficulties or adversity, love will always survive.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
- Now that we’ve seen what love isn’t, we learn what the poet thinks love is.
- In these two lines, he brings some nautical imagery into the mix (think storms and ships, not anchor tattoos and pirates).
- In Line 5, he dramatically changes the tone with "O no!" to signal this shift from negative to positive, and immediately launches into an affirmation of love’s qualities. It is, as he says, an "ever-fixed mark" – that’s easy enough, it just means a marker that never moves.
- Line 6 emphasizes this steady, solid quality, saying that it weathers storms ("tempests") but is never disturbed.
- What kind of marker is it, though? The answer to this question comes in the second half of the quatrain.
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
- Here, we discover that the "ever-fixed mark" that came up in line 5 is a star – not just any old star, but the North Star, the only one that never changes position in the night sky.
- This refers to old-fashioned navigational knowledge; before the days of GPS and even reliable maps, sailors would chart their location in the ocean based on the position of the stars.
- Line 8 also refers to these astronomical ideas. In the Elizabethan period, nobody knew what stars were made of (which is why the star’s "worth [is] unknown"), even though mariners did know the location of stars in the sky, or their "height."
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
- OK, new image: the poet introduces a familiar figure, that of the Grim Reaper. He’s called "Time" here, but we can read that not only as hours and minutes, but as age and death as well.
- Line 9 tells us that Love isn’t Time’s "fool" – that is to say, Love isn’t a court jester that panders to the will of Time, despite the fact that the "rosy lips and cheeks" of a loved one may fade as they age.
- The "bending sickle" that swings in line 10 is the scythe that is traditionally pictured in images of the Grim Reaper.
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
- These last two line of Quatrain 3 sum up the point of the whole poem: love doesn’t change over time. It endures the passing of time, which is depicted as fleeting and "brief," and lasts until "the edge of doom," otherwise known as Judgment Day, the end of time, or whatever you want to call it.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
- The final two lines of the sonnet provide a dramatic and quite bold closing statement.
- Line 13 uses rather legalistic language to basically say, "If these ideas are wrong and anyone can prove that I’m incorrect…"
- The line poses something of a challenge to readers (do any of you have proof that he’s wrong?).
- The final line resolves this challenge through a somewhat complicated twist; by saying that the poet has never written anything and that nobody has ever really been in love before if love actually turns out to be less than eternal, the poem’s truth immediately becomes impossible to dispute.
- Why? Well, of course the poet has written – we’re reading his poem right now – and of course people have loved before…therefore, the ideas posed in the poem must be correct.
- It’s odd logic, but hey, it works. Kind of. Just don’t think about it too much.