I’ve never liked sonnets. They seem to me to be the topiary of poetry, living things twisted into an unnatural shape to display the cleverness and power of the person wielding the shears.
Given this prejudice of mine, I take the view that Shakespeare’s sonnets are more in the nature of a puzzle than a party piece. I find myself looking for the coded message he’s embedded in the poetry icing.
Sonnet 116 (even the naming convention turns this from “a poem Shakespeare wrote but didn’t title” to the literary equivalent of scripture) is probably one of the most quoted of Shakespeare’s sonnets. People read it out at weddings and confidently assert that it declares the immutability of “True Love”. Each time I hear it in that context, I want to say: “That’s not the message of this poem. Don’t take upon yourselves the burden of immutability. Embrace change.” but you’re not supposed to mutter Cassandra-like words at weddings. Getting into drunken fights with relatives at the reception is expected but sharing your experience of love is seen as poor form.
I am not the man my wife married thirty years ago. I’m very far from the eighteen-year-old boy that she first went out with. So if her love for me or my love for her hasn’t changed, despite the decades we’ve spent together, what link does that love have to our daily lives?
When I asked myself why Shakespeare, who wrote plays so rich in ambiguity, would pump out such straightforward Hallmark sentiments about love, it occurred to me that I needed to look more closely at the text. When I did, my reading of the sonnet offered a view of love is that is closer to my own experience. Which may just mean that I found what I was looking for in the poem, regardless of what Shakespeare intended but that is often the nature of the reader’s relationship with poetry.
The poem starts not with the union of two hearts that beat as one but with “the marriage of true minds”. What are “true minds” if not minds that think and see clearly? What does a marriage of true minds mean but a commitment to share the clarity and truth of your vision and thought?
In which case, to borrow from a different poet, “what’s love got to do with it?”
It seems to me that Shakespeare presents love as a constancy of intent. It is a pole star to navigate by. It does not change its intent because circumstances change. It does not flinch when marital storms cause conflict. It is not surprised or subverted by the unavoidable assaults of age and it is not extinguished by death.
This is a love I can relate to. One that guides my choices and defines my options. One that gives my life shape and purpose. It is a standard I can aspire to even when my actions fall short of my aspirations. It is a way in which “true minds”, who recognise the changes in themselves and each other, can navigate around or push through the impediments that change and chaos place in the way of a “marriage” of intent, a union of will.
If this be error, then so be it. It’s an error I’m willing to base my life on.