Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 3, No. 3. Monday, 6 Jan 1992.
Date: Sun, 5 Jan 1992 16:20 CST
Subject: Sonnet 116
I have been thinking about sonnet 116 since Geoffrey
Hargreaves asked the following question a few weeks ago:
"Is there a definitive (or even confident) interpretation of the
lines in Sonnet 116:
It is the star to every wandering bark
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. ?
Is the metaphor fractured? That is to say, you can take the
height of a star, if you have a problem navigating, but no
mariner has ever considered the worth of stars."
I am not sure what is meant by a 'fractured' metaphor. I have
never heard the expression before. If a metaphor is fractured,
is that an imperfection? Should we be bothered by the fact that
it 'says' two different things at the same time? On the one
hand, love is like a star because you can steer by it; you always
know where you are, no matter how storm-tossed or confused
you may be in other respects; on the other, we don't understand
it any better than we do the stars. We can 'take the height' of a
star, which gives us a number that we can use, but that fact
tells us nothing about its qualitative importance in what was for
Shakespeare (in all liklihood) a ptolemaic universe where height
had a moral value. So: while the true value of love may be as
mysterious as that of the stars, we can use it to steer by as we
do the stars; provided love is, as the poem's central conceit
would have us believe, as unchanging as the fixed stars. Which
brings us to the word that Shakespeare actually uses here which
is 'worth' not 'value.' "Worth' was and is a word with a very
wide range of social and moral applications, one of which
pertains to character. The character of the person, man or
woman, addressed in these sonnets is often in question which
gives the line a particular poignance--especially if we
remember that the man, at least, is socially higher and worthier
than the poet.
All this is pretty clear it seems to me; the real problems are
elsewhere, beginning with the first lines-- "Let me not to the
marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments"--which in the
very act of firmly slamming the door on possible impediments
to such marriages, effectively acknowledges that there are
plenty of them out there. Similar stresses and strains are
evident in what follows:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no! . . .
oh yeah? that "O, no!" tacitly admits that it happens all the
time. Things change, alter over time. Alterations bring on
alterations; removals, removals. when people lose their
youthful good looks--or their money--friends or lovers who
once proclaimed eternal fidelity remove themselves and look
elsewhere. As Bessie Smith sings, "No one knows you when
you're down and out." Love, like everything else, is subject to
time, is "Time's fool." Such knowledge is implicit in the
straining, struggling language of these lines. And that brings us
back to the matter of the poem's central conceit, which bravely
proclaims the opposite: love is the one fixed point in a turning
world. Well, yes. That's what everyone says and there are a
few people who really believe it and behave accordingly;
including the poet who knows, however, that he is virtually
alone in this. And that, it seems to me, is why the final couplet,
with its studied non-sequiturs, has such an air of empty
bravado, whistling in the wind.
Does this sonnet offer us an example of a poem 'deconstructing'
itself, rhetorically subverting its own rehetoric, as De Man says
all poetry and all literature must? Or is it merely imperfect?