Introduction by Linda Gregerson
Naturally, the sonnet underwent some changes in English. It is harder to find rhyming words in English than in a highly inflected language like Italian, so Wyatt and Surrey -- early Tudor practitioners of the form -- tended to grant themselves a slight reprieve. Instead of the tighter scheme favored by Dante and Petrarch (abbaabba cdecde or abbaabba cdcdcd), the English favored a pattern (abab cdcd efef gg) that demanded only two instances of a single rhyming sound. This apparently superficial accommodation came to have profound structural consequences. For the sonnet no longer divided primarily into two parts (an octave and a sestet) but rather into four (three quatrains plus a couplet), which were capable of shifting internal alliances. This in turn had powerful consequences for the shape of argument.
Argument had always been one of the common rhetorical modes of the sonnet, but it was the English who made argument supreme, subordinating every other rhetorical momentum. No longer was the sonnet exclusively dominated by the interior logic of meditation or the associative logic of image; no longer was the poet content to dwell upon fugitive sightings of the beloved. The poet had a case to make and a primary audience of one: you, dear creature, should return my love for any number of excellent reasons which I could name; you should put aside this reticence; you should grant me a kiss; you should grant me more than a kiss; you should be faithful only to me; you should be as I imagine you to be. Praise and blame pervade the poetry of love but, in English, praise and blame are incidental to the sonnet's primary business, which is persuasion. Love's story may be oblique, but love's argument is mounted directly. And, since the sixteenth century, that argument often stands or falls upon the couplet.
Click on the names below to hear these poets read Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 (in RealAudio):|
(For help, see a note about the audio.)
Emily Dickinson, "I cannot live with You" (April 14, 1999)
Robert Frost, "The Wood-Pile" (February 3, 1999)
Ben Jonson, "My Picture Left in Scotland" (November 25, 1998)
Walt Whitman, "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (October 8, 1998)
W. B. Yeats, "Easter 1916" (February 4, 1998)
Here is William Shakespeare's Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
A ravishing poem, one of the best loved and most frequently cited sonnets in English, but doesn't it refute my premises? The argument appears to be abstract or philosophical, not personal at all, not "interested" in the narrow sense. And impediment, which I have claimed the sonnet requires, is named by the poet only so that he may specifically disallow it. What shall we make of the contradiction?
"Let me not": the poem begins in the imperative mood. Its action is semantic -- it aims to delineate the allowable parameters of love -- and its goal appears to be air-tightness. I will not grant, the poet asserts, that love includes impediments. If it falters, it is not love. The love I have in mind is a beacon (a seamark or navigational guide to sailors); it is a north star. Like that star, it exceeds all narrow comprehension (its "worth's unknown"); its height alone (the navigator's basis for calculation) is sufficient to guide us. The poem's ideal is unwavering faith, and it purports to perform its own ideal. Odd then, isn't it, how much of the argument proceeds by means of negation: "let me not," "love is not," "O no," and so forth. Perhaps the poet is less confident than he appears to be.
What is it that makes confidence falter? The poem has been written to refute certain concepts (alteration, removal) that it relegates to the realm of abstraction. But in the third quatrain, abstraction begins to break down. Time, it seems, has something to do with change and threatened removal. The poet argues back: time is paltry compared with love. Time may alter loveliness, but love will not flinch. Time may be measured in petty hours and weeks; love's only proper measure begins where time leaves off ("the edge of doom"). Quite apart from the continued heaping up of negation (two more not's), this quatrain registers increasing strain. Line ten (the ominous sickle) is all but unpronounceable: the consonants come fast and thick; the hissing alliterations deform the line as surely as time deforms the beauties of the flesh. "Doom" was capable of a neutral meaning in Shakespeare's day -- it could refer to judgment of any sort, good or bad -- but it was always a gloomy syllable, especially in the context of final judgment (again, "the edge of doom"). "Bears it out" rings with defiance, which ironically tends to direct the reader's attention to that which faith defies. That something else, that deliberately unnamed enemy to love has, in other words, begun to assume palpable presence. And what the poem has gained in forcefulness, it has lost in assurance. Quatrain by quatrain, line by line, despite, or rather by means of, its brave resistance, the sonnet has been taken over by that which it has tried to write out of existence: by faithlessness.
The couplet represents a last, desperate attempt to regain control. It rests upon a sort of buried syllogism: I am obviously a writer (witness this poem); I assert that love is constant; therefore love must be constant. As any logician could testify, however, these premises have no necessary relationship to their conclusion. The couplet is designed to shut down all opposition, to secure the thing (unchanging love) the poem has staked its heart on. It is sheer bravado, and of course it fails. What fails as logical proof, however, succeeds quite brilliantly as poetry. The sonnet has staged its own undoing and, doing so, has rendered an eloquent portrait of faith-under-pressure.
these poets read Shakespeare's Sonnet 116:
(For help, see a note about the audio.)
Hear Gregerson, Doty, Merwin, and Schwartz read their own work from The Atlantic's pages in Atlantic Unbound's Audible Anthology.
Linda Gregerson is the author of The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (1996), a book of poems, and The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic (1995). She teaches Renaissance literature and directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan.
Mark Doty, an award-winning poet and author of the acclaimed AIDS memoir, Heaven's Coast, teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. His most recent memoir, Firebird, has just been published.
W. S. Merwin has won many awards for his poetry, including the 1998 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. His The Folding Cliffs, an epic poem, was published last year. His latest collection of poems, The River Sound, appeared earlier this year.
Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1994, for articles on classical music that appeared in The Boston Phoenix. His poem "Small Airport in Brazil" appears in the November issue of The Atlantic.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.