Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, denying Time's harvest of love, contains 46 iambic, 15 spondaic, 6 pyrrhic, and 3 trochaic feet. Like the varying magnitudes of stars that distinguish the sky's constellations, infused with myths describing all degrees and types of love, the spondaic, trochaic, and pyrrhic substitutions create a pattern of meaning that can be inferred by the discerning eye and mind. Shakespeare emphasizes his denial of the effects of Time on love by accenting "not" in lines 1, 2, 9, and 11, and "no" in lines 5 and 14. The forceful spondees at the beginning and the regular iambic feet at the end of each quatrain progressively build the poet's passionate rejection of love's transience. Quatrains 1 and 3, declaring what love cannot be, enfold his definition of love in Quatrain 2. The spondee, "It is," draws attention to the word "star" and the poem's essential metaphor, equating love and the North Star, at the poem's heart in lines 7 and 8. This figure of speech implies that while one can feel the intensity of one's love, i.e. measure the height of Polaris above the northern horizon, one cannot know the worth of an instance of love, i.e. the quality and duration of love reciprocated, without additional information.
The meanings of the poem's brilliantly varied iambic lines revolve around love's one fixed star, extending this image to the whole sonnet. Quatrain 1 begins with the unusual scansion of spondee, trochaic, iambic, pyrrhic, and spondee. No matter how unusual the situation, Shakespeare will not object to mutual love between honest people. Furthermore, their love should not depend on circumstances or people's opinions. The iambic foot of "Which alters" links across the poem to the spondee of "Love alters" in Quatrain 3. The abrupt trochaic, "even," in line 12, reinforces the importance of reciprocity in love, for love to be eternal. Moreover, the word "bears" alludes to the myth of the enduring love of Callisto and her son, Arca, as represented by the constellations of Ursa Major and Minor, with the North Star at the point of the tail of Little Bear. Quatrain 3, with a ratio of 15 regular to 5 irregular feet, begins with 2 spondees followed by 8 iambic feet. This sequence of regular feet evokes the sweep of Time's sickle, alluding to the far-reaching arc of the tail of the Great Bear cutting through and reaping the love legends linked to such constellations as Virgo ("rosy lips and cheeks"), Gemini ("looks on tempests"), and Andromeda and Perseus ("impediments" to the "marriage of true minds").
Unlike the quatrains, the final couplet begins quietly with iambic and pyrrhic feet. Then, Shakespeare's emotions erupt. With 3 spondees in the last 6 feet and the negatives of "never" and "no," he fervidly rebuffs Time its harvest of the love his sonnets express. Reaching back to the Gemini legend lurking in Quatrain 2 with "no man ever loved," Shakespeare reveals his intense anguish, akin to immortal Pollux's grief on the death of his darling, mortal Castor. Shakespeare's beloved will survive in his enduring sonnets, even after their love affair ends.
1. Let me not to the marriage of true minds
2. Admit impediments. Love is not love
3. Which alters when it alteration finds,
4. Or bends with the remover to remove.
5. O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
6. That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
7. It is the star to every wandering bark,
8. Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
9. Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
10. Within his bending sickle's compass come.
11. Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
12. But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
13. If this be error and upon me proved,
14. I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Works Cited and Consulted
Shakespeare, William. "Sonnets." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Volume One. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003. (1025-1237).
© Elmer Wiens