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Sonnet 116 is about love in its most ideal form. The poet praises the glories of lovers who have come to
each other freely, and enter into a relationship based on trust and understanding. The first four lines
reveal the poet's pleasure in love that is constant and strong, and will not "alter when it alteration
finds." The following lines proclaim that true love is indeed an "ever-fix'd mark" which will survive any
crisis. In lines 7-8, the poet claims that we may be able to measure love to some degree, but this does
not mean we fully understand it. Love's actual worth cannot be known – it remains a mystery. The
remaining lines of the third quatrain (9-12), reaffirm the perfect nature of love that is unshakeable
throughout time and remains so "ev'n to the edge of doom", or death.

In the final couplet, the poet declares that, if he is mistaken about the constant, unmovable nature of
perfect love, then he must take back all his writings on love, truth, and faith. Moreover, he adds that, if
he has in fact judged love inappropriately, no man has ever really loved, in the ideal sense that the poet


The speaker of this sonnet says he's completely bummed and that he's been bawling his eyes out over
his pathetic life and all of his misfortune. He says he's all alone and feels alienated and unsuccessful.
Heck. Even God is ignoring him and won't return his phone calls.

He says he wishes he was rich and had something to hope for. Also, he totally wishes he was good
looking, popular with friends, and talented like some other dudes he knows. But he's not, which is why
nothing seems fun anymore—not even the stuff he used to enjoy doing.

Just as our bummed out speaker is thinking about all the stuff he used to really dig, he suddenly
remembers a special person in his life and his mood begins to shift in a big, dramatic way. The mere
thought of this unnamed mystery person makes our speaker so unbelievably happy and hopeful that he
feels like a bird (a "lark," to be exact) that rises up and sings to the heavens.

Finally, our speaker concludes that, hey, life is pretty great after all. Even though this unnamed person
isn't exactly around right now, just thinking about his or her "sweet love" makes our speaker feel like the
luckiest guy ever—so lucky that he wouldn't trade places with anyone else for all the money and power
in the world.


Line 1

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,

Our speaker kicks things off by telling us that he's feeling 1) down on his luck and 2) super-unpopular.

He also uses the word "when," which tells us that he is no stranger to the kind of misfortune he's
experiencing right now.

By the way, the word "fortune" was spelled with a capital F in the first edition (1609) of Shakespeare's
Sonnets, but not in some other editions.

Fortune with a capital "F" is a.k.a. Dame Fortuna, the goddess of fortune and fate.

In Shakespeare, "fortune" is often personified as an unpredictable and unreliable goddess who can raise
men up to great heights or cast them down at any moment with the spin of her wheel.

This makes our speaker sound a little paranoid (like Fortune is out to get him) and it also implies that
he's not responsible for his situation.

So, why does our speaker feel so down on his luck?

We're not sure yet but the word "fortune" may have a clue in it. Since "fortune" can also mean
monetary wealth, it's possible our boy is hinting that he's completely broke. But, at this point, we can't
really know for sure so we'll keep our eyes peeled for references to money.

Like we said, our speaker is also feeling rather unpopular and insists that he's a "disgrace" in the "eyes"
of other "men."

Technically, that's not possible, since the only things in people's eyes are their retinas. And maybe the
occasional eyelash or sleep crumbs. So, this is a metaphor for the way other men harshly judge our
speaker and think of him as a disgrace.

Still, the way our speaker puts it gives us a pretty vivid image of a bunch of men totally mad-dogging him
(a.k.a. giving him the old stink eye).

So, where is our speaker, exactly? Out in public somewhere? Let's read on…

Line 2

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

Nope. Our speaker is "all alone" and bawling his eyes out because he's an outcast.

Go ahead and read this line out loud. Did you notice how those first three words come flying out?

"I all alone"has a pretty powerful sonic effect (known in the biz as alliteration – check out "Sound Check"
for more) and we can totally imagine our miserable speaker crying out (or, "beweeping") as he utters
these words.

Dang. So, why's he in an "outcast state"?

And what kind of outcast state is he talking about? Because the word "state" can mean a few different
things. It can refer to a social condition, an economic condition, or even an emotional, or spiritual
condition. We need to keep all these possibilities in mind.

Before we move on, let's do a quick sound check. Shakespeare's sonnets are mostly written in iambic
pentameter, a type of meter that sounds like a series of five heartbeats:

da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.

If you read line 2, it scans like this: "I all alone beweep my outcast state."

So, that's the basic rhythm we're working with here. (You can go to "Form and Meter" if you want to
know more about iambic pentameter in this poem.)

Line 3

And trouble deaf heav'n with my bootless cries,

Oh, boy. It just keeps getting worse. Here, we learn that the speaker thinks God doesn't care about his
problems and is completely ignoring his useless ("bootless") cries.

Our speaker is also getting a little snarky—he uses the word "trouble" to imply that his cries are getting
on God's nerves.

What's interesting is that our speaker doesn't actually use God's name here. Instead, he personifies
"heav'n" (as if "heav'n" has got a set of "deaf" ears or something).

What's up with that? Is the speaker so ticked off at God that he can't even say his name? Or, is he just a
tad nervous about saying something really blasphemous like "Hey, God! Are you deaf, or what!?"

Either way, the speaker's complaints about "deaf heav'n" give us a sense of his isolation.

We also get the sense that our speaker is in a state of spiritual despair, which is often considered a sin.

So, now we're reminded of a word the speaker used back in the first line of the sonnet: "disgrace." In
the context of the first line, the word meant that our speaker was out of favor with other men and with
fortune, right?

But, now that we know our speaker feels like he's out of God's grace, the word "disgrace" takes on a
new meaning in this sonnet (spiritual despair).
Okay. We need to switch gears for a moment.

Remember how we said the sonnets are mostly written in iambic pentameter? Well, this line is kind of a
head scratcher in terms of meter. "Heav'n with" is a trochee, which is basically the metric opposite of an
iamb. Instead of sounding like a soothing heartbeat, a trochee sounds like this: DUM-da.

So what? Well, the effect of sticking a trochee in the middle of this line full of iambs is pretty jarring, and
it emphasizes our speaker's bitterness toward God, or "heav'n." Check out "Form and Meter" for more
metrical discussion.

Line 4

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

When our speaker says he looks upon himself, it seems like a metaphor for self-reflection. (Although, it's
also possible that he's literally gazing into a mirror and cursing his bad luck, or "fate.")

This tells us that our speaker is pretty introspective and it also reminds us that we are definitely reading
a lyric poem. (Lyric poetry is all about the emotions and feelings of the individual speaker.)

Also, did you notice how he says he curses his "fate"? It's similar to what he said about his lousy
"fortune" back at line 1.

This dude may be doing a lot of inner reflection, but he doesn't seem interested in taking any personal
responsibility for his current situation. We wonder if that will change as we read on.

Line 5-7

Wishing me like one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,

Now, the speaker starts thinking about all the stuff he wishes he had and gets jealous of all the other
men around him who have more stuff going for them.

Let's start with line 5—we can read it a couple of different ways:

1) The speaker wishes he was like someone who is more hopeful about his future;

2) The speaker wishes he was like someone who has a better chance of becoming "rich," or wealthy.

Hmm. That's interesting. The pun on the word "rich" here sends us back to line 1, where the speaker
puns on the word "fortune."

So what? Well, all this punning on words related to money tells us that Shakespeare is making a
distinction between two very different kinds of wealth: spiritual wealth and monetary riches. At this
point, our speaker seems like he's flat out broke in both senses, even though he hasn't come right out
and said so.

Our speaker does say that he wishes he was good-looking ("featured") like this one guy and that he had
a lot of friends like this other guy. Also, he wishes he had some other dude's talent ("art") and yet
another guy's ability or opportunity ("scope").

Is it just us, or does he sound like that old-school Skee-Lo song "I Wish"? ("I wish I was a little bit taller. I
wish I was a baller. I wish I had a girl who looked good. I would call her.")

By the way, who the heck is the speaker talking to in this sonnet? Himself? God? Some generic
audience? Someone specific? Maybe reading on will give us an idea.

Line 8

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Here, the speaker uses paradox when he claims that what he "most enjoy[s]" is the same stuff that
makes him the least content, or least happy. Huh? (That's almost as confusing as the phrase "fair is foul,
foul is fair" from Macbeth.)

Basically, the speaker is feeling sorry for himself (and sort of being a poetic show-off ) as he thinks about
all the stuff that he used to love but no longer enjoys because he's now in such a miserable state.

FYI: we know from Sonnet 18 that the speaker of the Sonnets is a poet.

By the way, Shakespeare is also dropping a little chiasmus on us here, Shmoopsters. He tends to do this
whenever the speaker of the Sonnets is getting all analytical and has had time, as critic Helen Vendler
puts it, to "think things out and judge them."

You know what that means, right? Our speaker is about to have an "Ah-ha!" moment...

Lines 9-10

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee,

There's a pretty dramatic shift happening here. Just when our sulky speaker has been thinking about all
the things he thinks he doesn't have and all the stuff he doesn't enjoy anymore, he suddenly remembers
someone from his past: "thee."

Okay. Who the heck is "thee"?

Based on what's we've read so far in this sonnet, we don't really know who "thee" is but we do know
that when our speaker remembers this person, it cheers him up.

How do we know this? Well, "Haply" means "by chance," and it's also a pun on the word "happy," so we
get the sense that when the speaker just so happens to think of "thee," it fills him with joy. Yay!

By the way, this sudden and dramatic shift is what's called a "turn" or a "volta," and almost all of
Shakespeare's sonnets have one.

How do you recognize a volta? Here, the word "yet" is the big tip-off that the speaker has just had an
"ah ha!" moment and is beginning to snap out of his bad mood.

What's the effect of this? Well, as we read, it makes us feel as though the sonnet is happening in real
time—as if we're experiencing the speaker's thoughts and emotions as they unfold.

Lines 10-12

[...] and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate;

Hmm. Looks like our once-totally-bummed out speaker is in a much better mood.

Here, he uses simile to say that he feels "like" a "lark" (a bird) that flies up to heaven and sings hymns.

That's a pretty stunning image, don't you think?

In reminds that our speaker's spirits were pretty low—kind of like the "sullen" (dark or mournful) earth
that our lark arises from.

But now the speaker's mood has been completely elevated—like a high-flying bird.

Did you notice that the word "sing" appears three times in this quatrain? (In the words "despising,"
"arising," and, finally, in the word "sing.")

What's the effect of all this repetition? It makes the whole quatrain sound like uplifting music. (A
"hymn" maybe?)

Go ahead and read it out loud. The whole thing sings, sings, sings—just like that lark.

So, all this talk about how the speaker feels like a bird singing at "heaven's gate" reminds us of line 3,
where he complained about "heav'n" being "deaf" to all his crying and boo-hooing.

Does this mean our speaker is on better terms with God? Is God actually listening to him now?

If so, why does our speaker still avoid saying God's name? (He uses the word "heaven" again.)

It seems pretty clear our guy is no longer in a state of spiritual despair, but we're not quite sure that God
has anything to do with it because the speaker doesn't say that God has put him in a better mood. He
says that thinking about "thee" makes him happy, right?
It sounds like he sees this "thee" person as his spiritual salvation, don't you think?

Before we move on, let's talk about how line 11 spills over into line 12 without any punctuation or end
stop. (That's called enjambment, by the way.)

It's a pretty snazzy move on Shakespeare's part, because when a line of poetry spills over into the next
one, it's sort of like the action of our flying bird.

Neither the lark nor the line can be stopped.

We just love it when the form of a poem mimics the action of its subject. Check out "Form and Meter"
for more of that kind of love.

Lines 13-14

For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings,

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

When we finally reach the heroic couplet that caps off this sonnet, the speaker repeats that it's the
memory of the addressee's "sweet love" that makes him feel so rich that he wouldn't change places
with the most powerful or wealthy guys (kings) in the world.

So, what kind of "sweet love" are we talking about, exactly? Platonic love? Sexual love? Intellectual
love? Familial love?

Given the fact that the speaker boo-hooed earlier about feeling "all alone"(2) and not having any
"friends" (6), it seems like he could be talking about friendship here, as if he's just remembered that,
hey, he does actually have a pal after all: "thee."

On the other hand, the speaker talks about the addressee's "sweet love" as if it's some kind of religious
experience in lines 10-12.

By the way, Shakespeare is playing around with a common conceit found in courtly love poetry, where a
lover is often said to "worship" his beloved. And that's just a tad bit erotic, don't you think?

Still, we really don't have much information at all about "thee" in this sonnet, so you decide.

Okay. Remember how we said that Shakespeare makes a big deal out of the difference between spiritual
wealth and financial wealth throughout this sonnet (especially in line 5)?

He emphasizes the point again in this final couplet when the speaker says how someone's "sweet love"
makes him feel "wealthy" (in the spiritual or personal sense).

It's like the old saying goes: You're never really poor as long as you've got love.

Word up, Shakespeare.