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The art of the sonnet, Part I: Shakespeare

The sonnet, specifically the Elizabethan sonnet, is one of the most enduring forms of poetic artistry. Shakespeare, the first great writer in the English vernacular, wrote some of the best known sonnets in English. Sonnet 116 is part of his famous sonnet cycle.

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. 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 proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

First, let’s establish some rules about sonnets. They are always 14 lines…always. The Elizabethan sonnet has a rhyme scheme as follows: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The first eight lines are known as the octave, the last 6 as the sextet. The poem usually proposes a problem or conflict at the beginning and then line 9 brings the turning point. So the octave is the expository section and the sextet is the resolution, line 9 serving as the change.

Enough terminology already, let’s get to the good stuff-analysis. In the octave Shakespeare introduces the first argument of his sonnet-love does not change. It is something static, something constant that cannot be moved. It is the guiding light of a lost ship. He says that love is a star, and a star is something which endures far beyond our lifetimes.

This poem is unique in that the octave and sextet are not problem/solution, rather argument/argument. Therefore Shakespeare’s second argument is this- Love is timeless. Shakespeare references the beauty, literal and abstract, of being young. But time, Shakespeare says, will take all the joys of youth with its sickle.

Sonnet 116 is one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. Try reading it aloud and see the way the words flow beautifully within the strict form of the sonnet. Maybe even try to write your own.

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