Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds – William Shakespeare

Background

This and Sonnet 18 are the most famous in English language. This too has as its subject matter romantic love. But modern commentary on this poem has it that it is not about romantic love as is commonly believed. This sonnet comes in between a few others where the poet talks about infidelity in love. Critics hence believe that this poem too must mean other than romantic idealized love. The 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote have posed problems for commentators as it is not clear to whom they were dedicated. 126 of them were addressed to Mr. W.H. and 25 to the Dark Lady. No one can say with any degree of certainty who these persons were.

Metaphorical inference

This poem tells us both what true love is and what it is not. The poet does not believe that there can be obstacles in the path of true love. Love is unchanging and constant and it is capable of overcoming all challenges. Even when someone tries to make it alter, it does not do so as it is an “ever-fix’d mark”. It is like the North Star that always stays in one place and guides sailors through dark nights and tempests. No one can measure the depth of love though we can know something of its intensity. Time can play havoc with good looks but love continues nevertheless. Love is not linked to time; though months and years may swing past, it continues. Even when disaster looms, it stays true. The poet is ready to swear that what he has said is true. If he is proved to be wrong, he is ready to take back all he has ever written. Then perhaps, it can also be said that that no man has ever loved honestly.

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Summary

The poet declares that he will not concede that true love can ever be hindered by obstacles. The first quatrain tells us what love is, according to the poet. Love is strong and it is constant. It is not possible for anyone to make it change according to their will because it is firm and even raging tempests will not move it from its course. In this it resembles the North Star that stays in one position steadfastly, helping sailors find their way on the ocean. Love is an unmeasured quantity though we may have some idea of its intensity. Love does not come under the sway of time unlike beauty which can be marred by time. Love lasts till the very end. No one can prove this statement wrong. If indeed it is proved wrong, the poet is ready to disown all that he has written so far.

Analysis

The poet does not want to admit that there could be obstacles to love between two individuals who are genuinely in love with each other. Love is not an emotion that changes when change is at hand. It does not change direction even when someone forces it to do so. It remains firmly fixed and can stare even tempests in the eye. It is as constant as the North Star that never changes its position in the sky and hence is used by sailors to find their way when lost. There is no way to measure love’s depth though we can have some idea of its intensity. Love does not come under the sway of time unlike beauty which is marred by the passage of time. Time is like a grim reaper that kills beauty but love escapes his sickle. Love does not change though weeks and months go past but carries on till the Day of Judgment.
In the couplet, the poet declares that if his claims about love are proved false, he will disown all that he ever wrote. The couplet is surprising weak after four quatrains of intense poetry.

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Overall impression

It is easy to understand why this poem has been celebrated over the years. It has moving descriptions of the best qualities of love. It is not cloyingly sweet but the robust descriptions will touch any heart.