Admitting Impediments: Engaging Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

Note: By day, through most of the year, All Nine contributor Andrew Lazo works as a high school English teacher, regularly cajoling, threatening, wooing, enticing, bribing, and even tricking teenagers into reading thoroughly and, if and when at all possible, enjoying their reading, especially poetry. As such, he covets such kind thoughts and prayers as you might send his way; here he offers some thoughts as a kind of war correspondent on the front lines of the battle to make poems matter.

Admitting Impediments: Engaging Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

Andrew Lazo

Image by Lancia Smith
My favorite recent CD purchase came from listening to an NPR report about William Shakespeare’s original pronunciation (OP). The British Library has put forth a record of thirty passages, and the first track has grabbed me and has not let go: Sonnet 116. You probably know it; you might well have heard it recently at a wedding:
Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle’s compass come: 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved. 

“Ahhh,” we all sigh prettily. Who doesn’t love this sonnet? I surely do, but it also sets me to thinking about these impediments Shakespeare speaks of. I have friends with great marriages; I know folk not so fortunate. And I wonder what this sonnet has to say to all of us. Let’s have a look.

First of all, please let me clarify the key phrase in line 2: “admit impediments.” On the surface, the premise of the poem appears to call for the speaker to practice denial when looking at the sober realities of “the marriage of true minds.” It seems to show the poet begging himself to turn a blind eye to all the unpleasant realities he faces in his relationship. But in fact I don’t believe that Shakespeare means this at all.
And here my immensely practical Latin minor comes in handy again. “Ad” means “to, toward.” “Mitto mittere missus sum” are the principle parts of the verb “to send.” “Admit” therefore mostly means, “send towards.” Think of a ticket that allows you admission—to be sent toward the action. And “impedimentum” literally means “something that snares the feet.”
So to not “admit impediments” in this sense surely doesn’t imply that I should deny the downfalls, but rather means, literally, “Don’t allow me to send toward my good relationship things that will trip us up.” I think Shakespeare means to marvel at the goodness of love and murmur a quiet prayer against jeopardizing it.
Surprisingly, for such a popular wedding selection, this poem has an alarmingly large number of negatives, of dire warnings about fearful fates. While of course the poem serves as a praise of steadfast love, the poet manages to do so dangerously, with statements and images that, taken by themselves, might alarm us.
“Love is not love,” the poet says (before of course qualifying it—but there those words stand, right at the end of the line). “O no!” he cries. The poet finds his beloved altered, finds some force trying to “remove” the best bits. Tempests come. Ships (that’s what a “bark” is—think “disembark”) wander, and who has any idea how much such steady love is really “worth”? The beloved with her rosy lips will breathe her last, felled by Time’s inexorable “sickle.” It flies all too fast, and in the end of its “brief hours and weeks,” it slips silently over “the edge of doom.”
And at the end, the uncertain poet even allows that his high view of love might be a provable error; and if that’s true, it means that all poetry and love itself unwinds and proves false. Dire prospects indeed.
Perhaps a measure of Shakespeare’s greatness surfaces when we see how deftly he manages to laud love while using such apparently negative language. In the fourteen lines, the poet uses “no,” “never”, and “not” eight times—or about once every other line. He paints in this poem a kind of negative-space picture, portraying the very height of love by all these nay-saying verbal brushstrokes, displaying how very fragile we sometimes find our love.
Wow. Gulp. Such a wedding blessing, this. Mazel tov.
But I think this quality of potential danger circles us back around to the beginning of the sonnet, and makes that first two lines, the lover’s admonition to himself, absolutely vital (and “vital,” you know, means “life-giving”). What can give life to love? What can make marriages last?
Although I’m surely no expert, I believe that the frank internal dialog, this self-exhortation the poet offers in lines one and two, just may hold the key.
When he urges “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” I think the poet means a number of things:
  • Oh, please oh please, don’t let me ruin this sweet thing we’re striving to assemble!
  • Keep me from my own choices that might sabotage this tiny limited company, this business we build in our home.
  • Keep my mouth shut when an unkind remark might swamp our small boat.
  • Help me let go of my obsessive need to keep score.
  • Help me take with good humor, with open-hearted laughter even, the very things that bug the living fire out of me about this person I chose. And while I’m at it, let me choose this same person again. Today. Right now.
  • And please let them find us equally ludicrous, and so let us laugh at each other, and help to choose each other again.
  • Let me, each new day, soften my heart towards this one I have married, for how easily can these little hardnesses calcify until I’ve made my heart a stone? And how well we know that a stone in a shoe can cause the horse to throw the rider and, before almost any time has passed, the horse, the battle, the war, and thus the kingdom, are lost.
  • Maybe if I learn not to admit or let in anything that snags or tugs, that sin that so easily besets, maybe then I shall find myself dwelling in the kingdom in which I’ve always longed to live. Maybe Solomon had this in mind when he warned his beloved to “catch the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom” (Song of Songs 2:15). For sometimes foxes run through our blooming vines with their tails afire, ruining years of good wine with all of its attendant future joy.
A dear friend remarked to me not long ago that a good marriage absolutely requires “two very good forgivers.” I often say that anytime one has two perfectly good sinners under one roof, things can go downhill fairly fast. I’ve visited several friends this summer with great, solid, loving, and lifelong marriages, and they all have about them a kind of vigilance against impediments, impediments that usually come from their own foibles.
They have several things in common, these contented couples: selflessness, the profound sense in each of their own individual ridiculousness, and a deep-seated sense of humor about, and tenderness towards, one another’s failings—these mark the most successful marriages of true minds that I know. Not admitting impediments. Oh, they confess such things exist. They just decide vigilantly to keep them outside the door so that they starve and slink away.
This dear, sweet, difficult sonnet leaves us all with something. To the married, it offers a kind of primer on how to hold it together, an artful exhortation to watch the gates. To those who have lost love, it may offer an instructive and even actionable way to understand what went wrong. And to those who have never married, I think it offers both a heady warning and a hearty hope about what potential glories a marriage of true minds might offer.
I believe that this sonnet itself offers a star to all our wandering barks, which just might make navigable a dark night at sea.
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