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Last Updated October 23, 2023.

“Sonnet 116,” or “Let me not to the marriage of true minds,” is a poetic exploration of the nature and character of love. It argues that true love remains steadfast and reliable, insusceptible to time’s decay or alteration.

The poem is a Shakespearean or English sonnet, which consists of 14 lines. It is divided into three quatrains (four-line sections) and a final rhymed couplet (two-line section), following the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme. The structure and form conform to the conventions of English sonnets popularized by Shakespeare.

The sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, the most common metrical pattern in English poetry. The iambic pentameter contributes to a regular, rhythmic pattern in the sonnet. This rhythmic quality helps create a sense of balance and harmony in the poem, reflecting the stability the speaker attributes to love.

“Sonnet 116” employs several poetic devices to enhance its impact and convey its themes. It begins with the metaphor of “the marriage of true minds,” representing the deep connection between two individuals in love. Metaphors and vivid imagery combine to form lines 6 and 7:

[Love] looks on tempests and is never shaken; 

It is the star to every wand’ring bark . . .

Here, “tempests” may be seen as a reference to trials and “wand’ring bark” as a reference to people as they journey through life. 

Shakespeare employs personification with the declaration that “Love’s not Time’s fool,” this personification of Time continues in the following line with the words, “Within his bending sickle’s compass come.” In his portrayal of Time, Shakespeare alludes to the personification of another entity, Death, as Death is often depicted carrying a sickle or scythe. Therefore, Shakespeare links Time to Death, a reminder of mortality and physical decline. This motif is enhanced by the fact that “rosy lips and cheeks” come within the “bending sickle’s compass”; physical beauty is no match for Time.

In the rhyming couplet at the end of the sonnet, Shakespeare introduces a hint of irony:

If this be error and upon me prov’d,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

The existence of this sonnet is proof that Shakespeare did indeed write, and thus, Shakespeare insists that the description he has given of love is true as well.

“Sonnet 116” is part of Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets, published in 1609. The exact date of their composition is uncertain, but it is widely believed that they were written in the late sixteenth century. The sonnets are addressed to two central figures: the “Dark Lady” and the “Fair Youth.” Sonnets 1–126, including “Sonnet 116,” are often considered to be addressed to the “Fair Youth.” 

While there is no single, specific individual associated with the “Fair Youth,” several potential candidates have been suggested by scholars over the years. Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, the third Earl of Pembroke, are some of the more commonly proposed candidates, but the identity of the “Fair Youth” remains open to debate.

In “Sonnet 116,” the inspiration appears to be the general concept of true love rather than a specific event or person. Moreover, the sonnet has a universal quality that extends beyond the personal experiences of the speaker. “Sonnet 116” conveys that true love persists in the face of time and adversity. It is a philosophical contemplation of love’s ability to transcend the limitations of time and circumstance, making it a powerful and timeless work.

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