A personal interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnet CXVI
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments(1). Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds(2)
Or bends with the remover to remove(3):
Oh, no! it is an ever fixèd mark(4)
That looks on tempests and is never shaken(5);
It is the star to every wand’ring bark(6)
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken(7).
Love’s not Time’s fool(8) , though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come(9);
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks(10)
But bears it out even to the edge of doom(11) :—
If this be error and upon me proved(12)
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
1. Let us not accept difficulties in considering a committed love relationship.
2. Genuine love does not change when circumstances change.
3. Nor does love disappear when a lover no longer loves one.
4. Love is constant, its presence can be relied on.
5. Even under emotional turmoil or a stormy relationship, love holds true.
6. "Bark" is an alternative spelling of "barque" which is a sailing vessel; so a "wandering barque" is a ship that is sailing to no particular destination, but using the stars to navigate by (which was the main way to navigate by night in the 17th century); so, in this metaphor the poet is comparing love to a guiding star.
7. One way to tell the value of a cargo that a ship (barque) may be carrying was to calculate (by trigonometry) how tall the ship’s masts were; the taller the masts, the bigger the ship, the more cargo it would carry. So, the poet is extending the metaphor of the previous line to indicate that, although we may know the size of the ship, we may not know how valuable it is. Perhaps what the listener is intended to understand from all this is the idea that a lover may be guided by love, even in the case of a person who can be seen and to whom one is attracted by their appearance, but whose character is not known to the lover.
8. In medieval courts the king has a jester, or fool, who often spoke in ambiguities to the king to tell him "home truths" but in such a way that he could not be accused of disloyalty to the king because the words could be taken in a less "revealing" way. So, here the poet is using the idea of Time as a ruler to whom Love could be the fool (and therefore not telling the straight forward truth). But the poet is saying "Love is too honest to be a fool" and that love endures despite the passing of time.
9. Time was often equated with the poetic figure of Death who has traditionally been represented as using a sickle (a sharp tool for harvesting crops like wheat) to symbolise the ending of life (the harvesting of souls, perhaps). The phrase "within his bending sickle’s compass" means that Time (and ultimately Death) bends to use the sickle to take whatever is within the reach; even "rosy lips and cheeks" (the symbols of Beauty and Youth).
10. The poet’s use of "his" is here ambiguous. Does he mean Love or Time? Either way, love does not alter over any period of time.
11. Love endures, even to the end of the world.
12. "If I am proved wrong", the poet says.