This sonnet is supposed to be addressed to Shakespeare’s friend, the Earl of Southampton. He wrote this sonnet to emphasize the consistency of true love and friendship when the Earl was presumably attracted towards the physical charms of a dark lady.
He begins by saying that true love or friendship never changes. If it happens to change or alter than it is not true love. If a lover leaves his beloved when she gets cold with the coming of age, then he is not a true lover. He compares love to the lighthouse. The waves and sea storms come and strike against the lighthouse but they fail to do any harm to it. It remains firm and continues to guide the ships. In the same way, true friendship cannot be broken or shaken away by difficulties of life or other charming diversions. In the second metaphor, Shakespeare compares true friendship to the polar star, which is unaffected by time and age and always guides the wandering sailors to come on the right path so that they reach at the desired place. In the same way, true friendship remains constant and guides the loved one to come back to the right course of life, so as to be able to achieve happiness and the targets of life.
In the third quatrain, the poet hints to the attraction of his friend towards the physical charm of a dark mistress. He speaks of the everlasting nature of true friendship which would not wither with time and age. Physical charms would go away with the age and thus the attraction would no longer remain in old age, but true love and friendship is immortal. It does not perish, time is personified here to show that it would easily cut the crop of physical beauty, but it cannot do any harm to true love or friendship, which have their basis in values and not charms. Thus it remains constant till the end of life.
In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare expresses his full faith in the philosophy of love stated in the three quatrains. He says that if his views on true love and friendship are proved wrong then he would conclude that no man ever loved in this world and he would give up all claims to be a poet. So he stresses that true love and friendship is forever.
It is a typical English sonnet. It has three quatrains and a couplet. Its theme is the permanence of love. The thought progresses step by step and concludes with the determined declaration in the couplet. This is the 116 sonnet of the 154 sonnets addressed to a young man, ‘Let me not’ is addressed to the Youngman, who is supposed to be the Earl of Southampton.
In the sonnet, Shakespeare speaks about his philosophy of love. It does not depend on the reaction of the loved one or the external factors. Time, place and physical constraints cannot alter the path of true friendship or love. It is said that Shakespeare was in love with a charming widow, referred to as Dark Mistress. She was physically very beautiful. Shakespeare’s friend and patron, the Earl of Southampton was also attracted towards her and turned away from the poet.
Through this sonnet, the poet assures his friend and patron of his constant friendship. He assures that his love is as fixed as a lighthouse and as constant as the pole star and it would be so till his confirmed end. The poet is willing to stake the whole of his literary reputation if in any way his statement is proved wrong.
It is perhaps the most moving sonnet in the English language. ‘Impediments’ recall Shakespeare’s – knowledge of the Prayer Book. Lines 7 and 8 show his knowledge of astrology. The rhyme scheme is ab ab, cd cd, ef ef, g g.
There are different shades of love. In this sonnet, Shakespeare chooses philosophy and spiritual value of love to put forth his ideas. Time, place and human relations have their effect on every human activity. Shakespeare believes that time, place and other diversions like physical charms cannot change true love and friendship. True love triumphs over all hurdles and remains constant throughout life. Nothing can hamper the union of true lovers or friends. Although the body gets weak, is adversely affected by time and age, but really true love remains constant and young as ever. This is an absolute truth.
Shakespeare uses metaphors in this sonnet to illustrate and emphasise his point of view. He compares true love or friends to the lighthouse. Sea waves and violent sea storms attack the lighthouse every time, but it remains unmoved and constantly stands fixed. Likewise, true love also suffers the vagaries of time and place but remains fixed. It remains devoted to his lover, as the lighthouse remains faithful to its work of showing the right path to reach the target. In the same way, true love guides a person to achieve a target in life.
The second metaphor is of pole star. It shines the right path to those sailors who have caught the wrong path, so it brings them on the right path. In the same way, love brings a person on the right track of life.
Sonnet 116 is about love in its most ideal form. It is praising the glories of lovers who have come to each other freely, and enter into a relationship based on trust and understanding. The first four lines reveal the poet’s pleasure in love that is constant and strong, and will not “alter when it alteration finds.” The following lines proclaim that true love is indeed an “ever-fixed mark” which will survive any crisis.
In lines 7-8, the poet claims that we may be able to measure love to some degree, but this does not mean we fully understand it. Love’s actual worth cannot be known – it remains a mystery. The remaining lines of the third quatrain (9-12), reaffirm the perfect nature of love that is unshakeable throughout time and remains so “ev’n to the edge of doom”, or death. In the final couplet, the poet declares that, if he is mistaken about the constant, unmovable nature of perfect love, then he must take back all his writings on love, truth, and faith. Moreover, he adds that, if he has in fact judged love inappropriately, no man has ever really loved, in the ideal sense that the poet professes. The details of Sonnet 116 are best described by Tucker Brooke in his acclaimed edition of Shakespeare’s poems:
[In Sonnet 116] the chief pause in a sense is after the twelfth line. Seventy-five per cent of the words are monosyllables; only three contain more syllables than two; none belong in any degree to the vocabulary of ‘poetic’ diction. There is nothing recondite, exotic, or metaphysical in the thought. There are three run-on lines, one pair of double-endings. There is nothing to remark about the rhyming except the happy blending of open and closed vowels, and of liquids, nasals, and stops; nothing to say about the harmony except to point out how the fluttering accents in the quatrains give place in the couplet to the emphatic march of the almost unrelieved iambic feet. In short, the poet has employed one hundred and ten of the simplest words in the language and the two simplest rhyme-schemes to produce a poem which has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection.
Questions and Answers
Q.1. What does the poet mean by ‘the marriage of true minds’?
Answer: According to the poet the marriage of true minds refers to the union or meeting of two souls who are faithful in love. By this the poet means eternal love which is not affected by circumstances or time but always remains constant. Thus the coming together of true minds unites the lovers forever.
Q. 2. Why does Shakespeare refer to the ‘ever fixed mark’?
Answer: The ever fixed mark is used for light house which stands in the sea. The light house guides ship to follow the correct path. It doesn’t leave nor stops its work in spite of attack of sea waves and sea-storms. True love is compared to light house. It signifies love that is fixed or constant and does not change in adverse circumstances. Love which alters is not true love and such relationships developed with weak bonds of love are not pure and do not signify the real nature of love.
Q. 3. How are the images of star and bark connected with love?
Answer: The Poet’s use of metaphors is evident in the image of the star and the bark The star refers to the pole star which guides the ships at sea. It helps them to come to right path. It always gives them, whatever may be the conditions. In the same way true love guides lovers in their trials. It doesn’t separate them. This comparison symbolizes true love which is firm.
Q. 4. Discuss Love’s not time’s fool’.
Answer: The phrase means that love is not a victim of time, and it cannot perish with time. Time destroys all nothing remains forever, as this is the law of nature. But true love is timeless. Time, place and relations cannot destroy them. It is immortal. In contrast, beauty or physical attraction declines with the passage of time but true love and friendship support an individual irrespective of the age.
Q. 5. What is the effect of time on beauty?
Answer: Physical beauty is very much short lined, within a few years with an increase in age, the physical charms fizzle out i.e. beauty is mortal. Beauty is dependent on age and wears away as time passes. Time has been personified in the sonnet and it is portrayed like an instrument which cuts the crop of physical beauty. Thus time affects the appearance of living beings.