What is the imagery in Sonnet 116?

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Sonnet 116 is one of Shakespeare's most famous sonnets, concerned as it is with unconditional love which does not alter "when it alteration finds." The poem is full of imagery, beginning with the concept of "the marriage of true minds" in the first line. While many modern readers see this word "marriage" in the sense of a legal wedding, Shakespeare is really using it in its older sense of joining or mingling; he asks that when two true "minds" are married, or fused together, there should be no "impediment" presented to prevent this fusion. The image of two lovers being joined at the deepest level, at the mind, sets the tone for what is to follow.

We see some nautical imagery in this poem, in the comment that love should be "an ever-fixed mark," and "the star to every wandering bark." Love, then, becomes the north star, a fixed point by which lost sailors can guide themselves, unshaken by "tempests." The comparison of love to a star, and the lover to a "wandering bark," suggests that love is constant, eternal, and unwaveringly pure.

Later, we see both Love and Time personified: love has "rosy lips and cheeks" which fall within the "compass" of Time's "bending sickle." This image alludes to the traditional picture of death holding a scythe, ready to cut down the "rosy lips and cheeks"—that is, the youthful beauty—which may have birthed love in the first place. However, not the "fool" of time, Love does not alter when these trappings of youth are gone, but "bears it out even to the edge of doom."

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Although many of the lines from Sonnet 116 are simply abstract statements about love, we do find several examples of imagery:

1. "That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;"

Here, the speaker is saying that love is someone (or something) that, like a lighthouse, looks right at a terrible storm and doesn't move or show fear. The image of the storm contrasted with stillness is a powerful one that conveys the strong, steady power of love.

2. "It is the star to every wandering bark,"

In the line above, the speaker conjures for us the image of a guiding star helping a wandering ship find its way in the darkness. Aside from providing a lovely and concrete mental image, the notion of a ship guiding a star implies the stability, guidance, and certainty that love offers.

3. "...rosy lips and cheeks / Within [Time's] bending sickle's compass come:"

Rather than saying something vague like "youth and beauty," the speaker opts for the image of red "lips and cheeks," then immediately calls forth the image of a sickle (that sharp farming tool that often represents death) to express concretely the idea that although time will detract from physical beauty, love will remain until we die.

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