Read below our complete notes on the poem Sonnet 116 (Let me not to the Marriage of True Minds) by William Shakespeare. Our notes cover Sonnet 116 summary, themes, and literary analysis.
Background of the Poem
“Let me not to the Marriage of True Minds” is one of the most famous sonnets of William Shakespeare. This sonnet is sometimes also referred to as “Sonnet 116.” It was written somewhere in the 1590s and was published in a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1609. In this collection, a total of 154 sonnets were published. These sonnets addressed a wide range of themes ranging from love, beauty, time, and jealousy to mortality and infidelity.
Among the 154 sonnets published together, the first 126 sonnets are believed to be addressed to an aristocratic young boy. Out of these 126 sonnets, the first seventeen sonnets argue with the young guy to marry and attain immortality by having children. The remaining sonnets deal with the themes of mortality and the ways of achieving immortality.
The last twenty-eight sonnets are addressed to a woman known as “dark lady.” These sonnets have a distressing tone, and the themes are centered on appetite and urge.
Sonnet 116 is also addressed to the guy with whom the speaker is in deep love. Now, if we consider the type of love described in this sonnet, it can be understood why the speaker is referring to platonic love. He says that he will not let any custom become a hindrance in his communion with his beloved.
During the 16th century, the poets of England started writing poetry in the form of a sonnet. It was a tradition set by the Italian poet Petrarch during the 14th century. In England, Thomas Wyatt introduced it for the first time. He followed the same patterns which were used by Petrarch. However, Henry Howard made a few changes to the form of this genre and introduced quatrains. This sonnet is the continuation of the same tradition.
Sonnet 116, like the other sonnets of Shakespeare, confirms with a few norms of sonnet writing and differs in few. It is written in the traditional fourteen lines style and is written in Iambic pentameter. However, its theme does not conform to the traditional themes of sonnets. The theme of most of the traditional sonnets was the quest for an unachievable love of a perfect lady. In this sonnet, however, the poet addresses a male beloved and tries to prove the superiority of love over time.
Sonnet 116 Summary
The speaker starts with an imperative claim that he/she will not admit any hindrance to the marriage of true minds. Anything—an idea or an argument—which tries to nullify the status of true love is not acceptable. People should not be afraid of negative propaganda against love. If love changes when it finds a better alternative, it is not true love.
True love will remain fixed to the same center forever. If someone claims to love someone but cannot resist the temptation of bending under the influence of some force, such claims are empty rhetoric. If a remover tries to remove the poles of love, true love will not let it do so. It will overcome any hurdle that comes in its way.
The second quatrain starts with an imperative phrase, “O no.” The speaker says that love is just like a lighthouse in the sea. It withstands the wear and tear of storms and remains unshaken in severe conditions. Just like the North Star shows the direction to the lost ships in the midst of storms, true love directs the wandering souls in the right direction. The worth of true love is also like the value of the North Star. The value of these two cannot be estimated even if we come to know their heights.
Love is not the jester in time’s court. It retains its authority regardless of how powerful and resourceful time’s arsenal is. The speaker admits that the outward attraction of humans does fade away with time. The rosy lips and cheeks of the beloved will surely lose their vibrant colors as time passes. However, love is not dependent on these things. The small hours and weeks of time cannot encompass the vastness of true love. True love will remain unchanged in the face of every trick employed by time. It will fight time until doomsday sees the end of time.
The speaker claims that if the arguments presented before are found inaccurate, he/she is ready to let go of all his/her writing. Similarly, he/she is ready to accept that no one has ever loved in the world.
Themes in the Poem
Love versus Time
The speaker of the sonnet speaks about the durability of love against the actions of time throughout the sonnet. The very first argument that the speaker makes is that true love is not the love that changes with time.
Time has the ability to change a lot of things as it passes. It has the ability to age a child through the years and make him/her an older person. It even chariots him/her to his/her grave. It is the same time that changes a seed into a large tree and then ages it towards extinction. In the same manner, almost everything in this world is unable to withstand the tides of time. As time passes by, everything changes shape and moves toward decline.
However, the speaker claims that true love has the ability to stand tough in the face of forces of time. No matter how great time is, true love always succeeds in defeating it. The obvious elements of love, like red lips and glowing cheeks, do fade away with time. The beauty of the beloved does not remain the same. However, true love is not dependent on these things. It thrives even when all the beauty is lost because it stays in the heart, which never alters.
The Concept of True Love
The sonnet seems to be an argumentative essay on the topic of true love. The speaker offers an argument after argument regarding the concept of true love in the whole sonnet. He/she says that true love is not limited to the frame of physical time. It surpasses such boundaries and lies way beyond the reach of worldly forces. When the worldly forces are trying to lead the boats of our lives astray, true love stands as the North Star to guide us through. It can help us in our fight against the elements of nature.
Moreover, true love is fixed and bright like a star. It does not move around like other heavenly bodies. Instead, it endures every difficulty and goes on to survive till the doomsday. True love is also a guiding star for the wandering souls. It helps the wandering souls in steering their ships in the right direction and get ashore.
Love as a Source of Guidance
Although the dominant portion of the sonnet argues about how love is a superior force than time, the poet has also provided another quality of true love. This quality is the ability to love to lead the wandering humans in the world. There are two analogies that attribute the quality of guidance to true love.
The first analogy appears in the fifth line, where love is compared with a lighthouse. A lighthouse is meant to help ships to find their way in the sea. They usually become useful when the ships are caught in the middle of the sea during a storm. In such situations, the lighthouse guides them towards the shore. Similarly, true love stands unshaken when all the reference points of one’s life are lost. It is true love that guides a person to safety at such times.
The second analogy is in the seventh line, where true love is compared with the North Star. The North Star helps ships in navigation during the night time. So, when the life of a person is immersed in darkness, true love helps him/her to navigate through the difficult times.
Sonnet 116 Literary Analysis
The speaker creates suspense in the sonnet as he/she claims his/her perfect knowledge about the nature of love. He/she arrives with a sudden thrust and straight away declares that he/she will not let any hindrance to the communion of true minds. The speaker sounds like an orator who is confident about his knowledge and wants to convince those who are listening to him.
This claim works just like the hook sentence of an essay or a speech where the author/speaker tries to get the attention of the reader/listener. Here, too, the author is faced with a surprising start, and he/she gets curious about what is to follow next. A skeptical reader, however, might start suspecting the motives of the speaker after coming across such a desperate start.
The use of the epithet “true” with the word “minds” makes a big difference throughout the sonnet. The speaker wants the minds to be true to each other and true to the notion of love. There might be a lot of people who will claim that they are in love but will be true to each other. Such people do not qualify for the standards set by the speaker. The speaker says that when two persons are true to each other, they will never face any hindrance in their communion. Even if they do face some difficulties, their love will be strong enough to help them through the tricky times.
Moreover, the use of the word “minds” instead of “persons” is also very suggestive. It takes away the concept of lust and physical attraction and leaves platonic love only. When we talk about a person, we mean the body and the soul both. But when we specifically say mind, it means that we are subtracting the bodily needs. The notion of true love beyond any limits is also strengthened by the technique of enjambment. The thought moves from the first line into the second line and trespasses the limit of a line. It shows that true love can go beyond any limit.
The second sentence is another assertion where the speaker informs the reader what true love is not. He/she asserts that the love which changes under the influence of some force can be anything but love. Here the alliterative sound pattern of the line makes the reader feel the urgency of the speaker in delivering his argument. Enjambment is again employed in this line, which furthers the concept of trespassing in the first line. The word “alter” also suggests a pun on the word “altar.” The speaker believes that love cannot be sacrificed no matter how sacred an altar is.
The last line of the quatrain provides another instance of the same theme. Love can never be altered by anything. The forces of the world may try and try but will never succeed in bending love. The word “bend” is suggestive of the bowing down or kneeling in front of a higher authority. Love does not bow down in front of any authority as there is no authority higher than its own. The redundant images of the stern nature of love intensify the claim of the speaker.
After illustrating what love is not, the speaker turns toward describing what love really is. He/she employs a metaphor and compares true love with an ever-fixed mark. The following line drags the same metaphor and gives a hint about what the speaker means by the “ever-fixed mark.” It is described as the mark which looks onto the storms and is never shaken. This tells the reader that the mark means a lighthouse. True love remains unaffected by any trouble that comes in its way, just like a lighthouse is unshaken during tempests.
The next line brings another analogy where true love is compared with the North Star. The North Star serves the purpose of guiding lost ships during the time of need. Love serves humans in the same manner and helps them in surviving through bad times. The North Star is also suggestive of steadfastness. It stays in the same place throughout the year. So, the speaker is saying that true love stays firm no matter how many changes occur in its surroundings.
In the last line of the quatrain, the speaker elucidates the value of true love. He/she says that we can come to know the height of the North Star but will never be able to calculate its real worth. Similarly, one can see the outward manifestation of love, but the real worth of love is unknown to the common people.
The third quatrain resembles the first quatrain in the sense that it talks about what love is not. It says that love is not the fool of time’s court. This image holds time as a worldly despot who has many jesters in its court. Every jester performs according to the will of the King. However, love is not a fool. Time may well fade away the cheeks and lips of the people but will never be able to take away love from their hearts.
The speaker uses the phrase “bending sickle compass” to depict the reach of time’s power. It shows that the reach of time is only limited to a small circle. The following line elaborates the same idea that the reach of time is limited to brief “hours and weeks.” On the contrary, the spectrum of love is very wide. It is strong and versatile enough to thrive until the last limit of time, i.e., the doomsday.
The couplet concludes the whole poem by accepting to bet significant things. Here, Shakespeare loses his impersonal tone and goes on to say that he is ready to let go of his entire body of writings if his arguments are proved to be wrong. He also claims that he will accept that nobody has loved in the world if someone can point out any error in his arguments.
The poem is written in the form of a traditional Shakespearean sonnet. It is composed of fourteen lines. The first twelve lines are divided into three quatrains, where the speaker explains what true love is not. The last two lines are in the form of a couplet, which stresses the authenticity of the arguments presented in the quatrains.
The meter used in the poem is iambic pentameter. There are ten syllables and five beats in every line for the major part of the poem. The lines twelve, eight, and six are exceptions. They all have an extra beat in the end.
Speaker of the Poem
The speaker of the poem is a person who talks of love in an imperial tone. By looking at the well-established arguments about the nature of true love, it can be assumed that the person is an adult who has had a first-hand experience of love. Throughout the poem, the speaker talks about the unchanging nature of true love. In the last couplet, he/she goes on to present his/her writing as an authority to confirm the argument of the sonnet.
The tone of the sonnet is imposing and majestic throughout the fourteen lines. The speaker permits no counter-argument to stand in his/her way while talking about the durable nature of love. The claims made in the poem are presented without a hint of doubt or misjudgment.
Literary Devices in Sonnet 116
- In the first line of the second quatrain, the speaker employs a metaphor and compares true love with an ever-fixed mark. The following line drags the same metaphor and gives a hint about what the speaker means by the “ever-fixed mark.” It is described as the mark which looks onto the storms and is never shaken. This tells the reader that the mark means a lighthouse.
- In the third line of the second quatrain, true love is compared with the North Star. The North Star serves the purpose of guiding lost ships during the time of need. Love serves humans in the same manner and helps them in surviving through bad times. The North Star is also suggestive of steadfastness. It stays in the same place throughout the year.
In the second and third lines of the poem, the words “love” and “love” and “alter” and “alteration” account for the alliterative sound pattern. Here the alliterative sound pattern of the line makes the reader feel the urgency of the speaker in delivering his argument.
Enjambment is employed in the first and third quatrain of the poem. This device furthers the concept that love trespasses every limit.
In the third line of the poem, the word “alter” also suggests a pun on the word “altar.” The speaker believes that love cannot be sacrificed no matter how sacred an altar is.
The rhyme scheme of this sonnet is ababcdcdefefgg.