What are all the literary devices used in Sonnet 116?

Some literary devices used in Sonnet 116 are repetition and consonance. The poem also utilizes all of the various devices that collectively define the sonnet's formal structure. And while Shakespeare appears to employ imperfect rhymes, this claim does not account for linguistic drift.

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In Sonnet 116 Shakespeare uses literary devices like personification, alliteration, and metaphor to convey the idea that even as beauty fades with time, true love remains strong. Personification is a form of figurative language in which a writer attributes human qualities to things that are not human. For example, in this sonnet, Shakespeare attributes human qualities to the concept of time, which is not human. Consider how he writes that

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come.

Shakespeare’s use of personification here suggests that time itself is destroying the beautiful physical features of the young. But he also says that love is “not Time’s fool,” which suggests that true love is not bothered by the deterioration of the physical and rather endures through time.

The use of the phrase “rosy lips and cheeks” to represent physical beauty is also read by some as an allusion to Cupid, the ancient Roman god of love. Cupid is typically associated with physical desire and attraction, which Shakespeare is saying is the kind of love that fades away. The love the speaker is describing is different than that kind of love; it is not just lust and attraction but rather the “marriage of true minds.” Here Shakespeare uses the metaphor of minds getting married, like people, to emphasize how connected the speaker feels to his love.

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The main literary devices used in Sonnet 116 are metaphors and personification. In line 7 of the poem, the speaker says that love "is the star to every wand'ring bark." In this line, the speaker uses a metaphor to describe love as a star, and he uses a second metaphor to describe a person's life as a ship, or "bark." The implication here is that love acts as a source of light to guide people through dark, difficult times, just as the North Star was at this time used by sailors to help them navigate their ships through the night. The North Star remains at a fixed point in the sky, and love, the speaker implies, is just as constant and as dependable.

In the second half of the poem, the speaker uses personification when he writes that love is "not Time's fool." Time is also said to have a "bending sickle," just like the familiar personified form of death known as the grim reaper. This personification perhaps makes "Time" seem willfully malicious and villainous, and thus true love in turn seems all the more heroic.

To convey his certainty as to what true love is, the speaker also uses literary devices like exclamatory sentences and rhyming couplets. He uses, for example, the exclamatory "O no!" to express how certain he is that true love does not alter according to changing circumstances. The rhyming couplet with which the poem closes ("prov'd ... lov'd") also suggests the speaker's certainty as it suggests finality and closure. The suggestion is that the speaker does not need to continue with his thoughts about what constitutes true love, because he is so certain that he has already arrived at the answer.

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The number and variety of literary devices that writers can apply to their work is so great as to make a complete and exhaustive compilation of them almost impossible, practically speaking. I think this is the case even in a shorter poem such as Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.

That being said, one device that I find particularly noticeable and attention-grabbing is Shakespeare's use of repetition, specifically on particular words. This effect can be seen in each of the poem's second through fourth lines, with the words "love," "alter," and "remove":

Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

This use of repetition has the effect of adding added emphasis to these specific words within the verse. Thus, even beyond the normal stressed-unstressed dynamic of traditional meter, this adds additional levels of stress on entire words, separate from the syllables that form them.

In addition, you can point towards various poetry-specific devices that would be common to all sonnets (given their formal structure): this poem, for example, has a consistent meter (being iambic pentameter) and a formal rhyme scheme (being abab, cdcd, efef, gg). Beyond these formal elements, you can also point towards Shakespeare's use of devices such as consonance, repeating the same consonant sounds. For example, in the poem's very first line, you can observe at least two separate examples of consonance working together with one another. Thus, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds" features repetition of both the m sound and t sound (alongside what looks like a possible third layer of consonance given the close proximity of the r sound linking the words "marriage" and "true").

All this being said, however, be aware that there might be an open question as to the degree to which Shakespeare used imperfect rhymes in this poem. After all, at first glance, this seems to be a common effect. Consider Shakespeare's linking of the words "love" with "remove," "come" with "doom," and at the very end, "proved" with "loved." However, here it is important to keep in mind that Shakespeare died over four hundred years ago, and four hundred years is a long time for linguistic drift (speaking in terms of the pronunciation of various words). With this in mind, it is worth questioning how these various words were pronounced in Shakespeare's own time, rather than our own. Perhaps some of these imperfect rhymes may have been full rhymes after all.

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