Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Here is Shakespeare’s famous 116th sonnet, which is a sonnet about love but not a love sonnet. It does not express the poet’s love for a person, but deals with the nature of love itself. You could read it as a kind of check list to see whether you are really in love or just infatuated by some superficial attribute of the person you are attracted to.

Or you can read it as just one more fabulous poem from the master himself…

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.

From <http://www.stagemilk.com/best-shakespeare-sonnets/>

So let’s see how Shakespeare defines the nature of true love:

  • It is the coming together of two minds which makes true lover – physical attraction, the coming together of two bodies, has nothing to do with it;
  • Love is consistent, it does not disappear when the loved one changes, it is steadfast, you could say love is not fickle; this notion is repeated four times over, in lines three to eight, each time with a different metaphor. External events, circumstances, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune cannot weaken love, if that is true love;
  • Love does not fade with time, even if time take its toll on health and beauty, love will last from the time of youth to the time of old age.

These are high standards indeed, Shakespeare knows love should be taken seriously and if so can last. The final two lines proclaim the poet’s confidence in his doctrine of love. If someone should prove that his thesis is not the case, then it would be as if all Shakespeare’s words and all human experience of love would be wasted.

Once again, Shakespeare elevates all our humanity, using language which is direct and striking. How on earth did he keep doing this in everything he wrote?

The Poetry Dude


O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors:

Here is a seasonal poem, in which William Blake celebrates or rather laments the impact of winter, in the spirit of the Grinch, Jack Frost, General Winter or any other personification of the coldest and most desolate season. Winter has taken over the northern hemisphere and there is no escape until the last two lines of the poem.


It is a desolate, but kind of magnificent vision.


To Winter

 William Blake


O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors:

The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark

Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs,

Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.’

He hears me not, but o’er the yawning deep

Rides heavy; his storms are unchain’d, sheathèd

In ribbèd steel; I dare not lift mine eyes,

For he hath rear’d his sceptre o’er the world.


Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings

To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:

He withers all in silence, and in his hand

Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.


He takes his seat upon the cliffs,–the mariner

Cries in vain. Poor little wretch, that deal’st

With storms!–till heaven smiles, and the monster

Is driv’n yelling to his caves beneath mount Hecla.

William Blake


From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/to-winter/>


First, two explanatory  notes may be needed. In the first line, the meaning of “adamantine” is unbreakable (well I had to look it up…). And in the last line of the poem, Mount Hecla is not a place in Greek mythology, it is a real place, the most active volcano in southern Iceland, and presumably the last refuge of winter when spring forces him back to his lair. (Those who remember Jules Verne’s story, “Journey to the Center of the Earth” will remember that the route to the center of the earth also started from a volcano in Iceland.)


So for most of this poem, winter is depicted like some giant monster, bringing frozen desolation everywhere he goes, dreadful but impressive. Mere mortals, like the poet, must lower their eyes, hunker down and just wait for that moment when heaven smiles and Winter starts to retreat to his cave.




The Poetry Dude

Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;

Shakespeare famously told of the seven ages of man, and here is Keats simplifying man’s time span down into four seasons, and cramming it all into a sonnet. Each season is neatly encapsulated in one stanza. To make this analogy work, you have to start with the season of Spring, which of course, departs from the calendar year, which starts in winter.

The Human Seasons


Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;

     There are four seasons in the mind of man:

He has his lusty Spring, when fancy clear

     Takes in all beauty with an easy span:

He has his Summer, when luxuriously

     Spring’s honied cud of youthful thought he loves

To ruminate, and by such dreaming high

     Is nearest unto heaven: quiet coves

His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings

     He furleth close; contented so to look

On mists in idleness to let fair things

     Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.

He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,

Or else he would forego his mortal nature.

From <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44472>

So now we know – Spring is the time of lusty action; summer of contemplation; autumn of introspection; and winter of approaching mortality. This is both intuitively appealing and also sufficiently flexible that all can adapt it to their own circumstances (50 is the new 20 etc…). The irony of course is that Keats himself never got much beyond Spring, setting the template for a Romantic poet by dying in his mid-20s.

The Poetry Dude

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,

Quite often, TS Eliot’s poems remind us that they are from a period in time, in this case the years of the 1920s and 1930s, a time when the middle and professional classes in England, people like bank managers, accountants and the like, could still live in town-houses with servants’ quarters, in the attic or in the basement, and have a housemaid, a cook and perhaps a butler in their service. This poem is evocative of that era, combining it with an atmospheric depiction of the foggy and run-down, slightly disheveled streets of suburban London.


The point of view is that of the poet, gazing out of the window of his house, and describing not only what he sees but also the underlying atmosphere of despondent middle-class England, in decline.


Morning at the Window

T.S. Eliot, 1888 – 1965


They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.


From <https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/morning-window>


The rattling of breakfast plates in basement kitchens are those of the servants washing-up their employer’s breakfast plates before embarking on the rest of the day. This done, the housemaids begin to emerge at the gates, perhaps to go out on shopping errands, or to sweep the porch – their souls are damp, reflecting the fog and rain of London, and their movements and outlook are despondent.


In the second stanza, the poet surveys the street rather than the houses – he sees faces through the fog and notes the mud on the skirts of some passer-by navigating the wet and dirty street. Her smile is aimless, irrelevant and rather hopeless, indicating a stoic acceptance rather than any inner joy.


The scene is cheerless and grim, but quite English of its time. Eliot lived in Kensington, now a very upscale part of London, but if you walk there today, you can indeed envision the scene described.


The Poetry Dude

i like my body when it is with your

Here is an ee cummings love poem, which is pretty clearly about sex – tender, loving sex, mot probably, but the intent is to convey the physical sensations of that most ubiquitous contact sport, not to go off into the higher meanings or metaphorical parallels of love.

He also uses one upper case letter to start a sentence (look at line 3).

The e e, by the way, stands for Edward Estlin.

E. E. Cummings

(1894 – 1962)

i like my body when it is with your

body. It is so quite new a thing.

Muscles better and nerves more.

i like your body.  i like what it does,

i like its hows.  i like to feel the spine

of your body and its bones,and the trembling

-firm-smooth ness and which i will

again and again and again

kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,

i like, slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz

of your electric furr,and what-is-it comes

over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new

From <http://hellopoetry.com/e-e-cummings/>

You can read this as a list of what the poet likes when he is having sex, and compare it what we may like. Or you can read it as an interpretation of what the poet may say to his lover in the aftermath of the act itself. Note that that there is only one “I like” referring to himself, in the first line, and even there it is dependent on the interaction with his lover. All the other repetitions of “I like: refer to aspects of his lover and her body. Which is as it should be.

The Poetry Dude

Our conquering swords shall marshall us the way

On December 12th 2014, this site posted a piece by Christopher Marlowe entitled “Accurs’d be he who first invented war”. Today’s poem goes In the opposite direction, praising the conquering swords and the excitement and exhilaration of victory in a battle fought at close quarters, with the spoils of war awaiting the victorious army.

The poem is short, but intense, taking us into the heat of battle, but fully confident in victory and triumph, capturing in a way the intense experience of being in such an extreme situation. The outcome is never in doubt for the reader, of course, once the title is understood, There is no irony here that I can detect.


Our Conquering Swords

by Christopher Marlowe


Our conquering swords shall marshall us the way

We use to march upon the slaughter’d foe,

Trampling their bowels with our horses’ hoofs,

Brave horses bred on the white Tartarian hills.

My camp is like to Julius Caesar’s host,

That never fought but had the victory;

Nor in Pharsalia was there such hot war

As these, my followers, willingly would have.

Legions of spirits, fleeting in the air,

Direct our bullets and our weapons’ points,

And make your strokes to wound the senseless light;

And when she sees our bloody colours spread,

Then Victory begins to take her flight,

Resting herself upon my milk-white tent–

But come, my lords, to weapons let us fall;

The field is ours, the Turk, his wife, and all.

Christopher Marlowe


From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/our-conquering-swords/>


The air of triumph is established right at the start of the poem as the poet describes he and his fellows already trampling over the corpses of their enemy. He compares his army to that of Julius Caesar. In fact lines five and six are quite interesting – you have t read the word “camp” as meaning “army”, not those who stayed in the camp; and then the sixth line means they won victory in every battle, not that they won without fighting. That reading makes the whole poem more coherent.


And then, what or where is Pharsalia? It turns out that it is not a place, but a book of history, written by Lucan (the Roman historian, not the disappearing Lord), in which, presumably there were many accounts of Roman victory in battle.


So the momentum continues inexorably towards Victory, and, as hinted in the final line, the inevitable rape and pillage that follows.


This is a stirring poem of the glory of war, in stark contrast to other war poetry, such as that of the first world war poets, and also very different in tone from Marlowe’s other poem.


The Poetry Dude

Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned

Here is a poem by Wilfred Owen, one of quite a few posted on this site chronicling the suffering and absurdity of life in the trenches on the Western front during World War One (you can also find poems on this theme on the blog by Siegfried Sassoon, Guillaume Apollinaire and WB Yeats).

The three smiles of the title could be the men smiling to keep their spirits up; smiles at the huge gap between the soldiers’ experience of suffering and daily exposure to death, compared to the gung-ho jingoism of the reports in the press (here the Daily Mail); and the smiles assumed by people back in England who believed what they read in the press reports about the cheerful heroism of “our boys in France”.

Read and weep – there is still too much of this sort of thing going on, one hundred years later.

Smile, Smile, Smile


Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned

Yesterday’s Mail; the casualties (typed small)

And (large) Vast Booty from our Latest Haul.

Also, they read of Cheap Homes, not yet planned;

“For,” said the paper, “when this war is done

The men’s first instinct will be making homes.

Meanwhile their foremost need is aerodromes,

It being certain war has just begun.

Peace would do wrong to our undying dead,—

The sons we offered might regret they died

If we got nothing lasting in their stead.

We must be solidly indemnified.

Though all be worthy Victory which all bought.

We rulers sitting in this ancient spot

Would wrong our very selves if we forgot

The greatest glory will be theirs who fought,

Who kept this nation in integrity.”

Nation?—The half-limbed readers did not chafe

But smiled at one another curiously

Like secret men who know their secret safe.

(This is the thing they know and never speak,

That England one by one had fled to France

Not many elsewhere now save under France).

Pictures of these broad smiles appear each week,

And people in whose voice real feeling rings

Say: How they smile! They’re happy now, poor things.

From <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/57347>

The poem absolutely nails the suffering of the soldiers, “Head to limp head”, “the sunk-eyed wounded”, “The half-limbed readers”; the pompous triumphalism of the reportage from England, heralding vast booty but minimising numbers of casualties, and proclaiming the glory of those who would die; and the accepting delusion of the public in England, convinced that the soldiers could genuinely smile as they did their duty for England.

Thank goodness there were voices like Owen, Sassoon and others to tell the truth in poetry. Where are the war poets of today?

The Poetry Dude