Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare

It's only been a few days since we finished reading Sense & Sensibility. A lot of people I know associate today's Shakespearean sonnet with the book because it was included in the 1995 movie version written by and starring Emma Thompson. The poem is first recited by Marianne and Willoughby when he first visits her after she twists her ankle in the rain; it is later quoted by Marianne as she looks at Combe Magna in a different rainy scene, just before Colonel Brandon carries her soggy self back to the house.

As a screenwriter, Emma Thompson could be making the point that love is not an ever-fixèd mark that can withstand tempests, or she could be making the point that what Marianne and Willoughby had was not true love. I rather favor the former interpretation, jaded though it may be. Nevertheless, this sonnet is one of my favorites (heck, it's one of almost everybody's favorites), and it seemed like an excellent choice for a cold winter's day here in New Jersey. (Then again, it'd be pretty perfect for a warm summer's day in, say, Auckland as well.)

Sonnet 116
by William Shakespeare

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 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.


Analysis and discussion

This particular Shakespearean sonnet shows the Bard at his finest. While it's written in iambic pentameter like the others, and the rhyme scheme is the same as other Shakespearean sonnets (ABABCDCDEFEFGG), this one makes quite a lot of use of enjambment, a technique where one is expected not to pause or stop at the end of each line, but only where punctuation exists. Thus, the first part of the poem when recited aloud would read as follows:

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;
The entire poem, start to finish, is keen on making the point that love is constant as the North Star (the star by which "wandering barks" or boats guide themselves), and that it withstands time and testing. True to Shakespearian sonnet form, the first eight lines set the situation: love is constant. The turn comes in the ninth line, when Shakespeare starts to discuss the fact that love is not affected by time in particular. And the final couplet turns the poem again, becoming personal: I love you, it says, and will love you always.

There's a lovely bit of analysis of this poem woven into the ShakespeaRe-Told version of Much Ado About Nothing starring Damian Lewis (RAWR!) as Benedick and Sarah Parrish as Beatrice. The poem itself starts at about 2:30 into this clip:






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