Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521
In spite of being one of the world’s most celebrated short poems, Sonnet 116 uses a rather simple array of poetic devices. They include special diction, allusion, metaphor, and paradox. All work together to reinforce the central theme.
Shakespeare establishes the context early with his famous phrase “the marriage of true minds,” a phrase which does more than is commonly recognized. The figure of speech suggests that true marriage is a union of minds rather than merely a license for the coupling of bodies. Shakespeare implies that true love proceeds from and unites minds on the highest level of human activity, that it is inherently mental and spiritual. From the beginning, real love transcends the sensual-physical. Moreover, the very highest level is reserved to “true” minds. By this he means lovers who have “plighted troth,” in the phrasing of the marriage service—that is, exchanged vows to be true to each other. This reinforces the spirituality of loving, giving it religious overtones. The words “marriage” and “impediments” also allude to the language of the service, accentuating the sacred nature of love.
Shakespeare then deliberately repeats phrases to show that this kind of love is more than mere reciprocation. Love cannot be simply returning what is given, like an exchange of gifts. It has to be a simple, disinterested, one-sided offering, unrelated to any possible compensation. He follows this with a series of positive and negative metaphors to illustrate the full dimensions of love. It is first “an ever-fixéd mark/ That looks on tempests and is never shaken.” This famous figure has not been completely explained, although the general idea is clear. Love is equated with some kind of navigating device so securely mounted that it remains functional in hurricanes. It then becomes not a device but a reference point, a “star,” of universal recognition but speculative in its composition; significantly, it is beyond human ken.
In “Love’s not Time’s fool,” Shakespeare moves on to yet another metaphorical level. To begin with, love cannot be made into a fool by the transformations of time; it operates beyond and outside it, hence cannot be subject to it. This is so although time controls those qualities which are popularly thought to evoke love—physical attractions. Shakespeare conjures up the image of the Grim Reaper with his “bending sickle,” only to assert that love is not within his “compass”—which denotes both grip and reckoning and sweep of blade. Love cannot be fathomed by time or its extreme instrument, death. Love “bears it out”—perseveres in adversity—to the “edge of doom”—that is, beyond the grave and the worst phase of time’s decay.
The final device is a conundrum in logic. It establishes an alternative—“If this be error”—then disproves it. What remains, and remains valid, is the other. It also bears a double edge. If this demonstration is wrong, Shakespeare says, “I never writ,” which is an obvious contradiction. The only possible conclusion is that it is not wrong. He proceeds then to a corollary, “nor no man ever loved,” which is as false as the previous statement.