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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Sonnet Analysis Of Sonnet Alteration Looks Compass Lips Sickle Presents Weeks Doom
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.
What's he saying?
"But wherefore do not you a mightier way / Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?"
Why don't you work harder against the ravages of time?
"And fortify your self in your decay / With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?"
And ensure that your beauty lives on beyond the way I represent it in this poetry?]
"Now stand you on the top of happy hours, / And many maiden gardens, yet unset,"
Right now you are in your prime, and many virgin wombs,
"With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers, / Much liker than your painted counterfeit:"
Would gladly bear your children, who would look much more like you than a portrait of you:
"So should the lines of life that life repair, / Which this, Time's pencil, or my pupil pen,"
That child would fix your old age in a way that I, the poet,
"Neither in inward worth nor outward fair, / Can make you live your self in eyes of men."
Cannot, in any way, for written lines are not as good as an actual life.
"To give away yourself, keeps yourself still, / And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill."
In giving yourself to a woman, you will create a new, young version of yourself in the children she bears.
Why is he saying it?
Sonnet 16 is a continuation of Sonnet 15, also of the "procreation" set. Though Sonnet 15 suggests that immortality can be reached through the poet's "engrafting," Sonnet 16 returns again to the theme of procreation. The final couplet of Sonnet 15 describes how the whole world is "in war with Time for love of you," and Sonnet 16 opens with a plea that the fair lord also defend himself against Time. The speaker calls his rhyme "barren," drawing attention to the fact that although it is one way to immortalize the youth, it does not do as much good as procreation.
In the first lines of Sonnet 16, the imagery of warfare enhances the idea of a battle against Time. In lines 1-2: "But wherefore do not you a mightier way / Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?" Time is called a "bloody tyrant" upon which the fair lord is encouraged to "make war" in a "mightier way" than merely being immortalized in verse, as was suggested at the end of Sonnet 15. The speaker urges him to "fortify" himself by having children to replace his youth.
A horticulture metaphor runs through lines 6-7: "And many maiden gardens, yet unset, / With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers." The "maiden gardens" refer to the wombs of virgins that could bear the fair lord's children. The phrase "yet unset" confirms that the women have not yet borne children. The "living flowers," therefore, are the children that would bear the young man's likeness. The personification of the gardens in describing them as having "virtuous wish" further enforces the metaphor.
The meaning of lines 9-10 is somewhat problematic, and there are various interpretations. The "lines of life" could refer to descendants in a linear heritage. But in light of the term "Time's pencil" in line 10, the "lines of life" could also refer to the wrinkles on an aged person's face, drawn there by Time. In line 10, "Which this, Time's pencil, or my pupil pen," it is unclear what "this" refers to. It could refer to the sonnet itself, but more likely, it is meant to be plural, or "these," referring to the two options other than having children: Time depicting you as you are now, aged, or the poet's description of you in verse. Both are inadequate, thus having children is preferable.
As the speaker encourages the fair lord to create new versions of himself in procreation, he uses the metaphor of a painter. The children will resemble him much more than a "painted counterfeit," or a portrait of him. Line 14, "you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill," suggests that the fair lord himself is the painter, or creator, of his children, or little replicas of himself. Thus will he become immortal, through his own doing, rather than that of the poet.