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William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Introduction by Linda Gregerson

October 27, 1999

   Engraving of Shakespeare
   by Martin Droeshout, 1623

When the sonnet was imported into English from the Italian, early in the sixteenth century, it was understood to comprise a set of formal conventions (fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, a fixed rhyme scheme) and, of equal importance, a set of thematic and rhetorical conventions. Sonnets came in groups, or sequences. They told a story; or rather, they refused to tell a story outright but were built around a story that took place in the space between individual lyrics. The story was of love -- love unrequited, love requited but unfulfilled, love so fleetingly fulfilled as merely to make suffering keener, love thwarted by the beloved's absence, or aloofness, or prior possession by another. Impediment was as central to the sonnet as was love. Impediment produced the lyric voice. Without impediment, the lover would have no need to resort to poetry; he would have something better to do.

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):

Linda Gregerson

Mark Doty

W. S. Merwin

Lloyd Schwartz

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Previously in Soundings:

Emily Dickinson, "I cannot live with You" (April 14, 1999)
Lucie Brock-Broido, Steven Cramer, and Mary Jo Salter read Dickinson's poem of hopeless love. With an introduction by Steven Cramer.

Robert Frost, "The Wood-Pile" (February 3, 1999)
Peter Davison, Donald Hall, and Maxine Kumin give voice to this poem by Robert Frost. With an introduction by Peter Davison.

Thomas Hardy, "During Wind and Rain" (January 6, 1999)
Donald Hall, Philip Levine, and Rosanna Warren give voice to this poem by Thomas Hardy. With an introduction by Philip Levine.

Ben Jonson, "My Picture Left in Scotland" (November 25, 1998)
Robert Pinsky, Gail Mazur, and David Ferry read aloud this great poem of unrequited love. With an introduction by Robert Pinsky.

Walt Whitman, "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (October 8, 1998)
Frank Bidart, Marie Howe, and Galway Kinnell read Whitman's stunning poem of self-doubt. With an introduction by Steven Cramer.

W. B. Yeats, "Easter 1916" (February 4, 1998)
Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, and Peter Davison give voice to one of the century's greatest poems. The first installment in a series of classic-poetry readings by contemporary poets, with an introduction by David Barber.

More on poets and poetry in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join a conversation on poets and poetry in Post & Riposte.

Here is William Shakespeare's 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-fixèd mark
            That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
            It is the star to every wand'ring 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 ev'n to the edge of doom.
                If this be error and upon me proved,
                I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

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.

Click on the names below to hear
these poets read Shakespeare's Sonnet 116:

Linda Gregerson Mark Doty

W. S. Merwin Lloyd Schwartz

(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.
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