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Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet CXVI) -- William Shakespeare

(Poem #363) Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet CXVI)
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.
-- William Shakespeare
The last time we ran a metaphysical poem [1], I went into a rather
detailed analysis of its construction, talking about the many conceits
used, how they fit into a logical sequence, and how the idea of logic
gave structure to the poem as a whole. Several readers wrote in to say
that they enjoyed that particular essay, and they'd like to see more of
the same on the Minstrels.

Of course, not all poems lend themselves to that sort of critical
dissection, and there are many which I believe should _not_ be analysed,
just read and enjoyed in themselves. (Several of you wrote to express
this latter point of view as well; you can't win, sometimes <grin>).
Nevertheless, I will be analysing today's poem in depth; I think it
offers a lot more to the reader who is willing to spend some time
inquiring into its meaning.

The Shakespeare of the sonnets is a very different person from the
playwright who gave us King Lear, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's
Dream. In the plays he is the consummate craftsman, entertaining
audiences with masterpieces of dramatic effect while exploring human
character to a degree seen never before or since. The sonnets, though,
reveal a more thoughtful, introspective writer, a philosopher-poet
inquiring, especially, into the question of Time and its effect on human
affairs. But he's never coldly intellectual;  his sonnets burn with
emotion and (unrequited?) love. And it's in this respect that I feel
that Shakespeare's sonnets are the definitive statement of the
metaphysical poet's art: he presages Donne and Marvell and their
'passionate intelligence' with remarkable accuracy.

'Let me not to the marriage of true minds' is about as metaphysical as a
poem can get; indeed, if I didn't know better, I would have credited it
to Donne. Its themes are the usual Shakespearean preoccupations: in his
commentary to 'Full many a glorious morning have I seen' [2], Martin
writes, "If you've read any of Shakespeare's sonnets, the sequence of
images is instantly familiar. Time triumphs over flesh, and Love over

This is the central idea of today's poem as well, but whereas in the
previous sonnet Shakespeare talks about the frailty of the flesh, here
he is more concerned with the constancy of Love.

Love (the 'marriage of true minds') does not weaken when the
circumstances that gave rise to it are changed - 'Love is not love /
Which alters when it alteration finds'. Nay, it is a constant, like a
star that glimmers fixed in the sky, far above the tempests that batter
the wandering bark [3]. And the navigator of life's ship can measure a
star's height to obtain a reading of his own position; thus the star
(Love) acts both as a symbol of constancy and as a beacon, guiding the
voyager onwards.

Nor is Love at the mercy of Time; although the external manifestations
of beauty ('rosy lips and cheeks') may fall within the arc of the Grim
Reaper's sickle, Love itself does not decay or crumble with the passage
of hours and weeks.


[1] John Donne's Valediction, archived at poem #330 . John Donne is
a relatively recent discovery of mine; be warned, this list will be
seeing quite a bit of him in the near future!

[2] Sonnet XXXIII, at poem #219

[3] This is the familiar conceit of life being a voyage; 'bark' is just
a synonym for boat (usually, with an added implication of frailty).


Until I read today's sonnet, I would never ever have thought of using a
phrase as clunky as 'admit impediments' in a poem... it just goes to
show, I suppose.

57 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Sitaram Iyer said...

> Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet CXVI)

oh, *lovely* poem, fond textbook nostalgia.

Bethany Wintermute said...

"The Shakespeare of the sonnets is a very different person from the
playwright who gave us King Lear, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's
Dream." This poem certainly does change my perspective of Shakespeare.

Wesley Petersen said...

Let me not to the marriage of true minds - it's really the most mind-blowing
poem of love that I've ever come across. How do I love thee, let me count
the ways...IT doesn't even compare to the master that was Shakespeare. So
many people search for love and get involved in relationships that
eventually fail and it's all because they don't really understand what love
actually means. I'd refer anyone to this poem if they ask for a definition
of LOVE. Great site, love your work too!

Kind regards,

Wesley Petersen

Jesse Allen said...

Tiny point

Thomas mentions "wandering bark" as a metaphor for a boat. Actually,
"bark" may (notice use of weasel word) be a failed spelling translation
to modern English to a "barque" (pronounced the same as "bark"), which
is a three masted sailing vessel, one of several common ship designs
for ocean-capable boats. English did not standardize spellings for
some words for some time and so apparently non-standard spellings would
appear at times. Indeed much of the heritage of modern American
English spellings stems from the efforts of Americans like Thomas
Jefferson trying to bring (what he regarded as) common sense and logic
to spelling and grammar which was random and illogical and encompassed
multiple accepted spellings for identical terms. Lots of "u" and
"que"s and such with which modern British English is rife are absent
from American English. The Elizabethian "wandering bark" may be either
an different spelling for "barque" or one that suffered Americanization
at some time subsequent to the Bard's penning it.


Tyrrell Frank said...

But what about the phrase "let me not..." I'm a little (OK, a lot) uncertain about what that means.


Frank Tyrrell
Senior Technical Consultant
Movaz Networks, Inc.
Atlanta, Georgia

Michael Fliegner said...

"Let me not ... admit impediments" - In my opinion it's just there for rythm
and - a sort of - rhyme, repetition of initial consonants.

Regards mfl

py-ref said...

In answer to Jesse Allen's question/comment, a brief Google search for
"First Folio" brought up an e-text page at the University of Virginia.
It uses "barke," not "barque." The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology
comments that the usage of "barke" for "a boat" is dated to about 1420,
and adds that it may have come through Old French "barque" from the
Latin "barca." I don't know if this clears the waters or not.

Dawn Baker Levi said...

"Let me not...admit" Means I will not admit. Shakespeare is denying that
anything can come between true lovers (that is, be an impediment to their


Janmaartens said...

Although "Time" is capitalized in line nine, and may therefore evoke the
Grim Reaper......when rosy lips and cheeks
"Within his bending sickle's compass come",
does it not more strongly evoke the arc motion of a sextant on the voyage of
life of the 'bark' (boat or ship symbolizing true love) of which the
physical attraction of youth forms a part, though not the whole?

Jan Maartens

Richard Rawnsley said...

This is my favourite of Shakespeare's sonnets... I love the bit where he alludes to navigation and writes " Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken" is really unmeasurable despite our efforts to measure it and those measures guide us with their symbolism. Wow! I definitely have bardolatory! Kay

Elizabeth Viall said...

After much searching back and forth, I chose this as my reading for my
wedding (15+ years ago). When it was read, and the reader was concerned
because he "got stuck" with reading Shakespeare and was overly nervous, the
congregation sighed with recognition after only the first line. Some
sonnets, and lines from plays, carry such meaning that only a brief reminder
is enough to bring out a much deeper emotional response that most readers
would expect from themselves.

Liz Viall

Elizabeth Viall said...

The editions I have spell the word as barque, which is identified as a type
of sailing vessel, which ties in nicely to the allusion to navigation, and a
true reference point on a voyage from point A (birth) to B (death).

Liz Viall

Graeme Tetley said...

May I suggest a reading to the first line. I hear in it the poet
chastising himself for not 'keeping the faith' in his love. I think
the stress falls on 'not' ... admit impediments' even though my lover
may 'alter' or 'remove'. The second 'not ' ('love is not love')
helps this idea along. And then he goes on to write the great almost
ecstatic description of what love is. GAT

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Jack Repenning said...

"If this be error and upon me proved" ..

What about that "upon me"? It sounds to me like a reference to
chivalrous combat in defense of honor. To prove something "to"
someone is only to present convincing arguments. But to prove it
"upon" them is to engage in combat or a duel, and to win, thereby
proving the truth of the claim by the valor of the battle.
Shakespeare, does not merely present an idea or theory: he announces
he's ready to fight for it.

Jack Repenning
Director, Software Product Architecture

Lwdail said...

Those blessed enough to find this kind of true love have been given a rare
and precious gift.
I know! Shakespeare must have had this kind of love in his life too;
without the gift, no one can possibly understand it.

Bob Swan said...

'Me' is that collection of attachments with which we label ourselves and,
consequently, everyone/thing else as well. 'I am tall', 'I am short' . male,
female, English, Chinese . I love seafood, trains, countryside - and on -
and on. All this is 'me'. All this is observed by 'I', the first person. We
all say 'I' no matter what we go on to describe. 'I' is the constant; 'me'
is everything else; changeable, temporary, subject to mood, company, etc.
So, "Let 'me' not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is
not love which alters when it alteration finds ." Methinks!

Sorry if this is all a bit late - only just discovered your site (and am
enjoying it too).

Bob Swan

Alma S. Ferrer said...

I am just a high school graduate (Puerto Rico) and was lucky to have an English teacher from the U.S. who made it clear only English was to be spoken during her classroom hour. This is the best thing that ever happened to me wherein all other English teachers would explain everything in Spanish. At first everybody was scared but after a day of two everybody was so involved they were really relaxed and enjoying the class. We had never studied anything related to Shakespeare but because of her now we know. This sonnet 363 is my favorite as I had to memorize it for the class. I am so happy I found your site and will repeteadly use it from now on. Good job.....!!!!!

Melissaharo said...

You could also suggest that the two of you see a marriage counselor if the letter writing and talking don't accomplish what you want. If your spouse is still convinced that the only thing that needs to change is for you to be more accepting of the flirting behavior, then marriage counseling could help.marriage counseling san diego When suggesting counseling, you might need to focus on wanting to get advice from the counselor to help you make the changes you need to. If you focus on wanting to get your spouse to a counselor so he or she will change, your attempts will probably fall flat.

Anonymous said...

This is one of my all time favorites for its universalness. Many of his other sonnets seem too specific about a person, or procreation for the sake of living on, that they don't work so well for communicating the profound sense of love and adoration that is the theme that runs through the sonnets as a whole. In all the critiques of this poem, I have not seen a good explanation of 4th line about "bends with the remover to remove." I would be interested to hear knowledgable speculation what this line means exactly...

Anonymous said...

I need some help. I'm not very good at analyzing poetry. Can someone please explain to me what the theme is? And some evidence that proves that it is the theme?


Beauty said...

no words to describe dis beautiful poem...!!!!!!
Its not just a great poem by d great Shakespeare but something true...something more.....for every heart which beats for someone special..........!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to see if I could weigh in on this and add a little something that it seems everyone may have missed in this poem.

I'm not so sure this poem is about love at all. Consider this poem in the context of dramatic irony and you might find it's more likely that the speaker of the poem is using sarcasm.

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments". This line tells us that there are three people in this poem, the speaker, and the two to be married. The question to ask is why would there be three people if this poem is about true love, after all a marriage is to be between two people. It seems as though it is being insinuated that there was a love triangle prior to this marriage.

Look at the tone of the poem, "Oh no! It is an ever fixed mark" sounds a bit sarcastic, like a man who actually would admit impediments at a wedding. What if this poem were actually read at a wedding by a man who had a relationship with the bride before she chose this other man to wed? It wouldn't sound very serious would it?

The speaker of this poem is a man who fell in love with a woman who told him she loved him back, and then left him for another man, and this poem is the sarcastic response which may have been recited by the speaker at the wedding.

Ashlar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

Ashlar said...

I can fathom why you'd think this poem is a matter of dramatic irony, I too have wondered whether sonnet CXVI is meant to capture the point at which the fair youth unites with the dark lady.
However, given the motifs of the procreation sonnets, I've also entertained that this one could be yet another attempt by the poet to persuade the fair youth to marry, and so in this sonnet the poet culminates by defining true love to the young man.
Furthermore, about the love triangle issue, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments" could be interpreted as such: it is not the case that there exists (at least in this reality) anything powerful enough to obstruct 'true love'. Reading it in this sense shields us from thinking of a conflict arising from a love triangle, even if their might have been one, as the poets acknowledgement that nothing can come between true love seems to negate the possibility of a love triangle hence the line "Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments". Which can be loosely translated as “I do not believe that anything can obstruct true love, to include a ‘third wheel’.

Also, in examining the lines preceding and following "O no! it is an ever-fixed mark" I'm not comfortable granting that the bard is being sarcastic. In fact one could argue that the statement is a declarative one particularly when read in conjunction with the line following it:
"O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken".
the poet seems to be telling us that love is steadfast and resolute, “it is the star to every wandering bark”

Tis true that the bards sonnets and plays are fraught with sarcasm, however, I'm inclined to think that there's nothing contemptuous in this poem. The poet, at least to me, seems to be sincere in his attempt at illustrating the absoluteness of 'true love'.
Nevertheless, you've given me much to ruminate on.

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Anonymous said...

Tyrrell Frank said...

But what about the phrase "let me not..." I'm a little (OK, a lot) uncertain about what that means.


I think this phrase should be considered in the context of a poem where absolute certainty is expressed through a negative catalogue of what Love is NOT... 'Let me not';'love is not love'; 'O no'; 'never shaken';'unknown';'not Time's fool';'Love alters not'; 'error'; 'never writ'; nor no man ever'.

And what about the ambiguity of the couplet 'nor no man ever loved'? No other man ever loved anyone; or I never loved any other man.

Anonymous said...

im doing my B.A Eng lit and i recently had my test and this poem was covered and i was asked a question who said " sonnet 116 is the last sonnet ? " do you have any idea ?

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Jual Parabola said...

"Let me not ... admit impediments" - In my opinion it's just there for rythm
and - a sort of - rhyme, repetition of initial consonants.

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