Poet's Pick April 1
William Shakespeare: Sonnet 116
Selected by Alicia Ostriker
National Poetry Month 2011

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Alicia Ostriker's Poetry Month Pick, April 1, 2011

Sonnet 116
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediment. 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 prov’d,
  I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.


* Alicia Ostriker Comments:
Sonnet 116 is one of those poems I memorized as an undergraduate without even knowing I was memorizing it.  (Another was its opposite, the bitter sonnet 129, that assails the evils of lust, or as Sharon Olds would say, “sex without love.”)  I looked, and it was there.  A gift unasked for.

What makes sonnet 116 so memorable? Partly the music, partly the meaning. That opening quatrain is something that makes the mouth happy, saying it. Something about all those alliterative and internal m’s—me, marriage minds, admit, impediment, remover, remove. The wordplay of that last pair of opposites along with alters and alteration. The t’s playing against the m’s. The idea that love is a “marriage of true minds” is as wonderful as the sound of it. That minds can marry! And thanks to the double meaning of “admit,” the poet is denying both that true love can be impeded, and that he would let impediments enter it. If it’s real love, the poet asserts, it doesn’t change even if the beloved changes or quits loving.

The rest of the poem ups the ante. Bad weather—the lover’s bad behavior—doesn’t trouble love. Love is a fixed star to navigate your life by. I’ve never understood what line 8 means, but that’s never bothered me, because right after it comes the ravishing third quatrain. Love’s not time’s fool, those four slow, deliberate syllables—two spondees in a row—never fail to make my eyes well up, and the following line and a half, evoking the freshness of youth and its aging and harvesting by the grim reaper, is like the purest Mozartean melody. Something about the three trochaic words in a row?  Something about the soundplay of compass and come? Within his bending sickle’s compass come. The quatrain’s last two lines say the thing again—juxtaposing “brief hours and weeks” with “edge of doom,” and assuring us that love (the word is now repeated for the fourth time in the poem) is independent of time and space. And finally the couplet, acknowledging perhaps our skepticism, rounds off with an arrogant personal claim—the poet stakes his writing and life on it—that instantly becomes universal. Sometimes, when I recited the poem to myself, I substituted “woman” for “man.”

Did I believe what Shakespeare was saying?  Did I believe that love was something changeless and timeless?  No, not at all. Even as a freshman I understood that love was the most mutable thing in the world. My joy in the poem was a perfect example of the suspension of disbelief. And yet...

Decades later, my mother lay dying in hospice on her 89th birthday. My relationship with her had always been a difficult one, but I had promised that the family—children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—would be with her for her birthday. On the day itself she had been unconscious and unresponsive for two days, though the hospice people insisted she knew we were there. We were there, holding her hands and singing to her when she breathed her last breath. Then there was silence in the room, as nobody knew what to do next.

In that silence, what rose to my lips was Sonnet 116, and I said it, and meant every word.

About Alicia Ostriker:
Alicia Ostriker is the author of twelve books of poetry, most recently The Book of Seventy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), which received the 2009 National Jewish Book Award for Poetry.

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