Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” can be a tough nut to crack. Between the antiquated language and the complicated metaphors, understanding the poem can be challenging to those unfamiliar with the sonnet. An understanding of what kind of poem it is, and what conventions of form and content it relies on, may help make the poem both more accessible and more enjoyable to readers.
“Sonnet 116” is, as its name suggests, a sonnet. Invented in Italy in the 13th century, the sonnet form first achieved prominence in the 14th century, when Italian poet Francesco Petrarch wrote a famous series of sonnets known as the “Rime Sparse.” Defined by its length of 14 lines and by the specific patterns of meter and rhyme that it follows, the sonnet remains a popular poetic form to this day. Well-known masters of the sonnet include John Donne, William Wordsworth and Robert Frost.
Within its 14-line structure, the sonnet can take several forms. “Sonnet 116” is an English sonnet – sometimes also called a Shakespearean sonnet. While the Italian sonnet popularized by Petrarch is characterized by an octave followed by a sestet, and by an abba abba cdecde or abba abba cdcdcd rhyme scheme, the English sonnet is structured around three quatrains and a couplet. The most basic rhyme pattern found in the English sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg, and it is this pattern that is found in “Sonnet 116.”
Part of a Series
“Sonnet 116” is one of a series of poems, 154 in all, written by Shakespeare and published in 1609 under the title “Shake-speares Sonnets.” Beginning with Petrarch, whose "Rime Sparse" included over 300 sonnets, poets have used sonnet sequences as a way to explore a subject from many angles. Ideally, any understanding of “Sonnet 116” should take into account the whole series of which it is a part, as Shakespeare’s sonnet series -- like most sonnet sequences -- offers a complex interplay of themes and preoccupations that can only be fully understood in relation to one another.
A final key to understanding “Sonnet 116” is to keep in mind its place within the long tradition of love poetry. Much critical ink has been spilled in attempts to determine to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed, but there is little doubt that love in its various forms is one of the poems’ major concerns. Sonnet 116 describes an ideal love, and states that if true love is not constant, even during hard times, then the poet is wrong about love entirely, and no man has ever truly loved. Part of what remains challenging and fresh in Shakespeare’s sonnets, including “Sonnet 116,” is the way in which the poet worked with -- and against -- the conventions of love poetry.