Sonnet 116

Melt. Swoon. I must say my way into this sonnet was via the mouth of Willoughby and Marianne teasing the words out of each other’s mouths and thus feeling a sense of inevitability, one evening in college. I found myself smitten with the buffoon we find Willoughby to become later on in Sense and Sensibility when he rebuffs his true love *we think*, Marianne, to retain his wealth and thus glory.

One of my poetry mentors a few years ago assigned a proper reading of the Norton Anthology as part of the 35 or so books to be devoured in a semester. I stumbled onto Sonnet 116 again and this time, the enticement could not be pinned on Willoughby, this time I found myself smitten by the words.

The sonnet speaks of love in flowery terms as “the star to every wandering bark” but also is dramatic and denotes the kaboom experience of love through soundwork. In it you get the soft m’s, b’s and s’s contrasted with the hard “c” – you get the soft and the hard playing together, paving a road of what love might look like. The sonnet admits two sentence breaks mid-stanza, which if read as part of their line read differently than part of their sentences. They are “admit impediments” and “Oh no!” – an interesting turn given that the former dovetails on the idea of not admitting impediments and the latter defines what love is and is not. Read as part of the line, the impression is different. A line that is particularly compelling to me includes three repetitions that serve as mirrors of love looking at itself, seeing what it is and is not: “Love is not love // which alters when it alteration finds, // or bends with the remover to remove.” I appreciate that in this instance the repeated words play noun on one point and verb on the other- each is subject and action. Love is all about action and the subject doted upon.

When Beck and I talked through what readings we would incorporate into the wedding ceremony, there was no doubt that we needed a poem or two. Initially, we toyed with a pair of Rilke poems about a panther and a gazelle, but decided people might not get the reference, given that one of them is a poignant look at a caged cat. Nope. When I read him Sonnet 116, we agreed it just fit and had the right panache for a wedding joining our two lives. Who wouldn’t want a poem with “tempests”, “the edge of doom” and a “bending sickle” watching over a man and a woman joining their lives together? Okay, maybe many people would shy away, but I guess that’s where my wordsmith husband and I diverge from the pack.

Michael, up to bat

We also needed the right someone to nail the “fix-ed” meter, to appreciate the sobriety of the words and bear them upon their tongue, weighing them out, measuring them for gold or fool’s gold. My cousin Michael gave a beautiful reading, choking up midway through. And the thing is poetry sometimes catches you by surprise. You think you know it and then realize it reveals another side of itself to you if you’re paying attention, like a woman in a trenchcoat, unknotting the belt to show off her little black dress underneath. If you stick with poetry, it rewards you with more of itself and who doesn’t like that?


Sonnet 116
by 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.
Oh 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.


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