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Akademische Arbeit, 2022
13 Seiten, Note: A star
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-fixed mark, That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering 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 even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The definition of love provided by Sonnet 116 makes this poem one of the most cited and anthologized in the entire poetic canon. Shakespeare presents the reader with his conception of love in its most ideal form. As Helen Vendler 1 has pointed out, this renders the poem almost ‘impersonal’, in that it presents an explanation of true love rather than addressing a beloved. For its impersonal nature, it is not, however, unique among the 154 sonnets composed by Shakespeare: sonnets 94 and 129 also offer generalised observations on different aspects of love. The main idea put forth in 116 is that ideal love is constant and permanent; that it never alters, either with changing circumstances (first quatrain), difficulties (second quatrain) or with time (third quatrain). The final rhyming couplet makes a defensive challenge to any reader who might want to contest this view of love, and the poet stakes his own poetry as his wager that love is exactly as he has described it. In spite of Shakespeare’s challenge, some scholars have detected a gradual ‘deterioration’ throughout the course of the poem in the poet’s representation of ideal love. It is a view which I wish to contest.
With its initial reference to ‘marriage’ and ‘impediment’, the sonnet opens with a manifest allusion to the words of the Marriage Service in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments.
The allusion is to the section from the service where the priest asks if anyone in the congregation is aware of a ‘just impediment ’ which might prevent the two persons to be wed from being ‘joined together in holy matrimony ’ (my emphases). From the outset, therefore, the poet seems to lend his approval to the sanctioning of true love through the institution of marriage.2 His allusion to this institution also provides a real and earthly context through which subsequently to examine the significance of love in more metaphorical and poetical guises - as, for example, an ‘ever-fixed mark’, a ‘star’, and ‘not Time’s fool’.
The poet continues by telling us what love is ‘ not ’, thereby seeming to stress the abstract and intangible nature of love. The heavy caesura in line 2 (after ‘impediments’) heightens the importance of this definition:
Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove.
True love, according to the poet, stands firm against changes in circumstances (‘alteration’) and it does not deviate (‘bend’) even if an exterior force should try to ‘remove’ it. Here the balancing effect of the lines underscores the harmony of a ‘loving’ couple’s relationship, and the word pairs, which create an echoing effect (‘love…love’; ‘alters…alteration’; ‘remover…remove’) reinforce the reciprocal nature of their love: it is mirrored from one to the other like the mirroring words. The structure of the poem in the first octave also underscores this notion of mirroring: the poet’s technique of using a strong caesura followed by a definition of what love is not in the second line of the first quatrain is repeated in the first line of the second quatrain where another caesura (after ‘O, no!’) is followed by a definition of what love is
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark.
This ‘ever-fixed mark’ is generally accepted as a metaphor for a ‘light-house’ (cf. Othello, 5.2, 306-7): it ‘looks on tempests, and is never shaken’. The image of the light-house reinforces the already established idea of love as something constant and steadfast: the light-house withstands the high winds and the bashing waves of tempests, just as true love remains immune to the stormy upheavals of life. The light-house image also connotes great strength, a concept reinforced audibly in the use of a direct and assertive vocabulary - ‘O, no!’; ‘it is’ - as well as in the heavily accentuated monosyllables, ‘fixed mark’, thereby introducing the new idea of love as a powerful life-force.
The nautical imagery applied to love is continued in the second metaphor attributed to it: ‘It is the star to every wandering bark’. The star referred to is the north star, also known by the Latin terms, stella polaris (the pole star) and stella maris (the sea-star). The north star acts as a guide to lost ships, because, lined up with either the north or south celestial pole, it appears more or less fixed in position. In this it is unique, for the other stars appear to move across the sky as the earth turns on its axis. The north star is therefore a fitting metaphor for the narrator’s concept of love as something reliable and immutable. Like the star, love guides and protects. It is a light, a reference point, especially in dark times when one feels lost or lacking in direction (‘wandering’). Moreover, it has, for the poet, a spiritual and metaphysical dimension. This is what is alluded to in line 8, the final line of the second quatrain: ‘Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken’. One can attempt to make love more tangible by measuring it, just as one can measure the altitude (‘height’) of the north star, but the value (‘worth’) of love, in the sense of the impact it makes on a person and a person’s life, can never be fully ascertained (it is ‘unknown’). Within the word ‘worth’ there also lies an allusion to money, buying and selling, perhaps suggesting the idea that one cannot buy love. It is a spiritual richness, not a material commodity. Like the star which inhabits the heavens, it is implied that the spirituality of love also borders on the holy: as previously observed, the north star is sometimes called the stella maris, a term which, on account of the eight-century hymn ‘Ave maris Stella’, became synonymous, even in Shakespeare’s day, with the Blessed Virgin Mary. This ‘holy’ imagery harks back to lines 1 and 2 with their echo to the Anglican marriage service, and could be said to lend the poem a religious significance to the extent that some criticism has claimed that it is God himself who is the embodiment of ‘love’ in this sonnet.3
1 Vendler, Helen, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge: Mass: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 1997).
2 Even though the general (but also disputed) view is that this poem belongs to the ‘Fair Youth’ sequence (numbers 1-126) of the 154 sonnets published in 1609 where the ‘Fair Youth’ is an unnamed young man addressed by the poet and for whom he expresses friendship and loving admiration but whose feelings also border on homoeroticism. The ‘youth’ in question has been posited as being the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesly, who was Shakespeare’s patron. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Tarquin and Lucrece were both dedicated to Wriothesly. A second, ‘Dark Lady’, sequence of poems includes the sonnets numbered 127-154.
3 See Lukas Erne, ‘Shakespeare’s “Ever-Fixed Mark”: Theological Implications in Sonnet 116’, English Studies, vol. 81, Issue 4 (2000) 293-304.