Love is Not Love – In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, Anyway

Sonnets 18 and 116 are two of Shakespeare’s most quotable love poems. If you’re a fan of weddings, rose-petal-filled baths, or Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility, you’ll probably recognize the lines “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds.” The problem with quotes, however, is that they lack context. Let’s do a quick line-by-line overview of Sonnets 116 and 18. You might be surprised to find that one of these so-called “love” poems is very much not like the other.

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.

This is Shakespeare’s equivalent of saying “Mum’s the word” to the ol’ “Speak now or forever hold your peace” bit of the marriage ceremony. In fact, Shakespeare won’t even admit the word “impediments” to the line that talks about marriage. Love: 1; Impediments: 0.

…Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

In other words, he’s not one for pulling any of this “you’ve changed” crap.

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

Psh, tempests.

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

The star to every wand’ring bark? That’d have to be the North Star, which never appears to move from its place in the Northern Hemisphere. The reason its “worth’s unknown” is because Europeans didn’t know a whole heck of a lot about stars back in Shakespeare’s day, what with still being bitter about the Earth’s roundness and all.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love: 2; Rosy Lips and Cheeks: 0. On a side note, remember that this is Shakespeare, meaning that anything a 12-year old could possibly construe as dirty probably is. Feel free to laugh, therefore, at the image of Old Father Time’s “bending” sickle.

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Love: 3; Edge of Doom: big ol’ goose egg. If love could speak, it’d be saying “booya” right about now.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Did Shakespeare just take an oath upon his own poetry? Them’s fightin’ words. If you’re not sure why, it’ll all make sense when we get to Sonnet 18.

Like Sonnet 116, Sonnet 18 is ranked high up there on Sappy Poetry lists… usually by people who go for explicit rather than implicit meaning. If you’ve ever considered including a reading of Sonnet 18 at your anniversary party, the last three or so lines will probably change your mind. (If you’re a really careful reader, the first two will do the trick.) Let’s start from the top.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Aww, how sweet! We think… To be sure, let’s read it again – aloud. Remember to stress every second syllable, like so:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Ah hah! Notice how “I” is emphasized but “thee” and “thou” aren’t? Sneaky. Let’s continue.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Can’t argue with that.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

Yeah yeah, we get it – everything in nature fades. Go back to that “thou” person already.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Woohoo! And the “thy” is emphasized! We knew Shakespeare would come around eventually!

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

We like where this is going.

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

Good, good. Keep it coming!

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

Uh oh, we’ve got ourselves a conditional. So let’s get this straight: all that not fading, getting ugly, or dying business depends on growing in some eternal lines to time? What does that even mean? And please don’t tell us it has anything to do with the fact that Sonnets 1-17 are also known as the “procreation sonnets.” If Shakespeare’s saying that the best way to bottle up all them good looks is by creating genetic blood lines, we’re going to go ahead and turn down that second date.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

Another conditional?!? Okay, okay: “so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see” is actually a decent amount of time, so we’ll let it slide.

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

At last! – an emphasized “thee”! But hold the phone: what‘s giving thee life? Some unnamed “this”?? Is Shakespeare referring back to those eternal lines? To give him a little credit, he probably knows enough about grammar to use the pronoun “these” when talking about something plural. Dare we ask… if “this” is the sonnet itself? Might Shakespeare be suggesting that being featured in his work immortalizes you? Are those eternal lines the lines of the sonnet itself? Is the final thee only emphasized because it’s the end result of Shakespeare’s awesome, immortalizing poetry skills?

Probably. After all, being Shakespeare is like being an Elizabethan rockstar: you can bully the roadies, sleep with the groupies, trash the hotel rooms, and still be the world’s darling. And let’s face it: if you went down in history as The Bard, you’d probably swear by your own poetry too.

Source by Paul Thomson

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