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William Shakespeare, in his Sonnet 73 and Sonnet 116, sets forth his
vision of the unchanging, persistent and immovable nature of true love.
According to Shakespeare, love is truly "till death do us part," and possibly
beyond. Physical infirmity, the ravages of age, or even one's partner's
inconstancy have no effect upon the affections of one who sincerely loves. His
notion of love is not a romantic one in which an idealized vision of a lover is
embraced. Instead he recognizes the weaknesses to which we, as humans, are
subject, but still asserts that love conquers all.
Shakespeare uses an array of figurative language to convey his message,
including metaphor and personification. Thus, in sonnet 73, he compares himself
to a grove of trees in early winter, "When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do
hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,..." These lines seem to
refer to an aged, balding man, bundled unsuccessfully against the weather.
Perhaps, in a larger sense, they refer to that time in our lives when our
faculties are diminished and we can no longer easily withstand the normal blows
of life. He regards his body as a temple- a "Bare ruined choir[s]"- where sweet
birds used to sing, but it is a body now going to ruin.
In Sonnet 116, love is seen as the North Star, the fixed point of
guidance to ships lost upon the endless sea of the world. It is the point of
reference and repose in this stormy, troubled world, "an ever-fixed mark That
looks on tempests and is never shaken;..."
He personifies the coming of the end of his life as night, which is
described as "Death's second self" in sonnet 73. However, in Sonnet 116 death
appears in the guise of the grim reaper, Father Time, who mows down all of our
youth, but still cannot conquer love- "Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips
and cheeks within his bending sickle's compass come;..."
While both poems make use of figurative language, sonnet 73 uses far
more imagery than sonnet 116. Sonnet 73 uses the image of the close of man's
life as a wintry grove with the few remaining leaves shivering in the cold.
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person's later years are the twilight of life, to which the night of death
inevitably follows. Further, the end of life is compared to the embers of a
dying fire, "In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire That on the ashes of his
youth doth lie,...." All of these images express the fading light of a life in
decline. The short, dark days of winter, the last rays at sunset and the
glowing remnants beneath the ashes all evoke the beauty of a once vibrant life
which is coming to a close.
In contrast, sonnet 116 presents two images. The first is that of the
exploring seafarer, out on stormy, uncertain seas with the North star of love as
his only guide through them. Even though the seafarer attempts to
scientifically measure the worth of this love to him, it is immeasurable- "It is
the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth's unknown, although his height be
The second image in sonnet 116 is that of Time mowing down our rosy-
cheeked youth. Even so, however, love is not ended by our brief time on this
earth, but lasts until Judgment Day- "Love alters not with his [Time's] brief
hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom."
Finally, the tone of the two poems offers the greatest contrast between
them. Sonnet 73 has a narrator who is somewhat detached and accepting of his
infirmities. The entire main body of the sonnet, lines one through twelve, is a
physical description of the narrator's decline, which is related in a soft and
melancholy voice. It is only the concluding couplet which brings home the
message that the strength of true love is shown when it exists in the face of
the narrator's inevitable decline.
On the other hand, sonnet 116 has a passionate, didactic narrator. He
orders and exhorts the reader. He does not address the object of his affections,
as does the narrator of sonnet 73, but directly addresses his audience.- "Let no
man to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments." This narrator uses his
concluding couplet almost as an ironic aside. You can almost see him speaking
to his audience from behind the back of his hand- "If this be error and upon me
proved, I never writ , nor no man ever loved." There seems little likelihood
that Shakespeare thought that he had to worry about losing that bet.
In conclusion, while the two sonnets differ greatly in tone, differ
somewhat in imagery, and have some similarity and some difference in their use
of figurative language, both express the universal desire for unconditional,
never ending love. Sonnet 73 seems to say that even such a love ends at the
grave, though.- "To love that well which thou must leave ere long." Sonnet 116
bears it out even to the end of the world. Either poem offers a vision of love
to which we can aspire.
Works Cited and Consulted
Abrams et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition, vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
Bender, Robert M., and Charles L. Squier, eds. The Sonnet: An Anthology. New York: Washington Square P, 1987.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. pg. 12-13
Ingram, W. G. and Theodore Redpath, Ed. "Sonnet 73," Shakespeare's Sonnets.New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1968. pg. 168-169.
Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997. pg. 333-336