Shakespeare's Sonnet 16


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Analysis of Sonnet 16

Sonnet 16 is a ravishing poem. It presents an argument that appears to be abstract or philosophical, not personal at all, not "interested" in the narrow sense. And impediment, which is generally required in a sonnet, is named by the poet only so that he may specifically disallow it. What shall we make of the contradiction?

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.

"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").

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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.

 


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