What does William Shakespeare mean by "If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ nor no man ever loved"?

In this final couplet, Shakespeare's speaker emphasizes that the words he has written in the rest of the sonnet are true. He states that if true love is not unchanging, he has never written anything and nobody has ever been in love. Since he has written sonnets and people have been in love, his words must be true.

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With these words, Shakespeare is trying to justify the view of true love that he's spent the rest of the poem expressing. He's told us that true love is unchanging, that it is a timeless ideal that cannot in any way be altered by “brief hours and weeks”. His beloved's “rosy lips and cheeks” will certainly change, but the love that they inspire most certainly won't.

What Shakespeare is putting forward here is an almost Platonic view of love as a timeless concept that represents what is ultimately real. That being so, it will exist for all eternity, long after the speaker and his beloved, indeed every single one of us, has passed away.

The last words of the sonnet are a challenge to those who doubt the truth of Shakespeare's exalted view of love. Essentially, what Shakespeare is saying is “If this isn't love, then frankly I don't know what is”. If love isn't as he's described it, a Platonic understanding of love that was shared by many educated men in Shakespeare's day, then he's at a loss to understand what it is. In that sense, the sonnet represents a standing challenge for someone—anyone—to come along and offer up their own definition of love and see if they can do any better.

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In this sonnet, Shakespeare's speaker differentiates between true love and superficial love. True love is not, he states, dependent on outward beauty or the beloved's youth. Instead, it unites two minds and souls. Therefore, if some "alteration" occurred to the beloved, such as, one might imagine, smallpox scarring, this would not matter to the true lover. Likewise, the ravages of age cannot alter true love, no matter how wrinkled or bent the beloved becomes. True love also stays steady no matter how radically the circumstances of the beloved change: the true lover will love his beloved even to the point of doom. Nothing physical can ever come between those who achieve the soul unity of real love.

The last couplet, quoted in the question, reinforces this idea and states that it is not hyperbole or exaggeration. The speaker says that that if people think his ideas about love are a mistake or think they will be proven a mistake because he abandons his beloved for a superficial reason, they will be wrong. He says that for him to abandon his beloved would mean he had never written anything (which is completely untrue) and that no person had ever loved (which is also untrue). The speaker is saying, in other words, that he knows what true love is and should be believed.

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These lines are from the couplet of Shakespeare's sonnet 116, Let me not to the marriage of true minds ...

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-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. 

The last two lines serve as an affirmation to the truth of what the speaker says throughout the poem.

The sonnet's theme is the nature of true love. The speaker states in the first two lines that he will accept or admit that there is, in the union of those who share a similar sentiment, i.e. love, any hurdle or barrier to taint such a love.

To confirm this statement he says that true love is unalterable and does not change, either because of circumstances or that the ones who so love are transformed in some way or another. Such love is permanently fixed and does not alter even when death (the remover) or some other unfortunate circumstance either removes or attempts to remove the one who is the object of such love.

This love can withstand any storm as a lighthouse does and retains its position. He uses a metaphor equating this love to a star that provides guidance to any ship that might have lost its way. Its true value can never be measured even though one can, in a literal sense, measure the height of a lighthouse or even guess at the distance of a star.

Furthermore, a love like this is not affected by the vagaries of time (equated here also with death) even though one may age and lose luster and vitality. This love does not adapt when times change - it is forever constant and it is able to survive until the end of time itself.

Finally, in the rhyming couplet, he states that if he is mistaken in his belief and his error is proved, then he has never written and no man has ever loved. This, of course, emphasizes the truth of what he believes for, he has written and men (and women) have loved. On this basis then, it is impossible to challenge his opinion.

 

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