What are the uses of imagery in Sonnet 116?

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The speaker of Sonnet 116 uses many examples of visual imagery to describe the quality of love. He calls it "an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken," a "star to every wand'ring bark," and he refers to love's "rosy lips and cheeks" alongside time's own "bending sickle."

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In Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare, the poet writes about the permanence and unchanging nature of real love. He begins by stating that there should be no impediments, or barriers, to two people who are truly in love and that true love does not change or cease because of altered circumstances. Shakespeare then begins to use vivid imagery to emphasize his thoughts on love.

He compares love to an "ever-fixed mark" that is not shaken despite tempests, or storms, which are symbolic of the problems or vicissitudes that life invariably brings. He then uses even more specific imagery in depicting love as "the star to every wand'ring bark." This star that Shakespeare speaks of would be the North Star, which sailors in those days looked to so that they could discern their position on the ocean and find their way home. A "bark" is a sailing ship. We see here the imagery of love as a fixed point that lovers (the sailing ships) can use to position themselves and locate their rightful homes.

When Shakespeare writes that "love's not Time's fool," he is saying that time does not change true love. He illustrates this with the imagery of "rosy lips and cheeks" (symbolic of youth) coming within the compass (or reach) of time's "bending sickle." The imagery of the "bending sickle" accompanies the personification of death. Here the poet is saying that, even in old age and death, real love stays true.

We see, then, that Shakespeare uses vivid imagery to emphasize his thoughts on the true nature of love.

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Shakespeare fills his Sonnet 116 with fascinating and appealing imagery. He begins by describing love as “the marriage of true minds” that will not “admit impediments.” Nothing can get in the way of true love, and love is about more than physical passions. It is a unity that extends to the whole person of both lovers.

The poet then goes on to personify love, saying that it does not change when the beloved does. It does not remove itself from the beloved as the years remove his or her physical attractions. Rather, “it is an ever-fixed mark.” It is steady and constant, unshaken by tempests. It is a star by which lovers may navigate, and it will guide them through the storm-tossed sea of life in the “wand'ring bark,” the ship of a relationship that will always remain something of a mystery. Yet when guided by the star of true love, this ship will survive.

Shakespeare also employs the image of Father Time with his sickle. Time can erase “rosy lips and cheeks.” It uses its sickle to cut down life as easily as a farmer can cut wheat, but time cannot make a fool of love. Love remains constant even as time goes by. It endures “even to the edge of doom,” never giving up, no matter what the “brief hours and weeks” may throw at it. It conquers all.

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The speaker of the poem describes love as "an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken," personifying the quality of love but also presenting a visual image of someone who will watch the development of terrible storms without trembling or becoming fearful. The use of the word "tempests," especially, lets us know that this is a raging, chaotic storm, not just some glorified rainfall. The word choice of "tempests" implies dark clouds, whirling winds, and torrential rains blowing in all directions.

The speaker also describes love as "the star to every wand'ring bark, / Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken." Here we have another visual image of a star to which a man onboard a ship or far from home might look for a sense of safety or security. It is something constant, or at least predictable, that he can locate in order to know where he is.

The speaker employs more visual imagery when he refers to love's "rosy lips and cheeks" and time's "bending sickle." We can easily see in our mind's eye a young person in love, with flushed face when they see their beloved. Likewise, the description of time, and the weapon it uses to mow down life when it reaches the end, is likewise clear. You can imagine the curved shape of the blade a reaper would use to harvest crops, just as time harvests lives.

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Two central images are used in Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.

Stanza two presents the image of love as constant as a star used by navigators to determine the location of ships.  The image is an extended metaphor that makes up stanza two, and reveals love that stays constant through storms and is never shaken.

Stanza three presents the image of love's resistance to and immunity from time.  Love is not time's fool or jester or clown, and love will not yield when time and the grim reaper try to bring death to love.  Love will last until the final judgment.  What love is not--the fool--is personified to form the first image, and is followed by the image of the grim reaper.      

The enotes Study Guide on the poem explains these two stanzas as follows:

The second quatrain uses a series of metaphors to flesh out the character of proper love. Its constancy is such that it not only endures threats but actually strengthens in adversity. Its attractive power secures the beloved from wandering, and it sets a standard for all other lovers. Although conspicuous and easily identifiable, its value is inestimable. Aspects of it can be measured, and many of its properties are tangible, but it resides in another dimension, unassessable by normal instruments in space and time.

The third quatrain considers the constancy of true love under the threats of time and aging. It declares that love is unaffected by time. To begin with, love far transcends such mundane physical characteristics as size, appearance, condition, and shape. For that reason, it ignores physical changes caused by age or health. It defies time and everything in its power, including death. True love operates in the realm of eternity. Not even death can part true lovers; their union endures forever. Because love has the capacity to raise human action to this exalted state, it alone enables humans to transcend temporal limitations. Humankind becomes godlike through love.

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