Transitivity patterns in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’

What follows is my answer to an exercise on transitivity patterns for the MA Literary Linguistics programme on which I’m enrolled. This post is probably not going to be particularly readable unless you’re familiar with transitivity patterns – however, I’ve uploaded a pdf of a mindmap I made which may help. You might have to zoom in on the pdf to make parts of it legible. If you’d like to browse some original sources, you’ll need to look up Michael Halliday and read his work.

Transitivity mindmap pdf below. The examples of each process are taken from John Braine’s Room at the Top, but these are examples I’ve picked out myself, so please be wary: I’m not altogether sure I’ve really understood the difference between an attributive and an identifying process, so best treat the examples with caution.

Action mindmap

I’ve reproduced below Sonnet 116 in full…and you might remember Marianne (Kate Winslet) reciting part of it after she’s been heartlessly dumped by Willoughby (Greg Wise) in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility:

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-fixèd mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring 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.

Which type of process is dominant in the poem, or does the poem mix different types? 

The poem consists of a mixture of different transitivity types.

There is a speaking voice in the sonnet, an ‘I’ or a ‘me’, whose presence is most noticeable in lines 1-2, 5 (‘O no’), and 13-14; on a discourse level, therefore, the sonnet in its entirety could be understood as a mental externalised process in which the SAYER is the I/me of the poem, the VERBIAGE is the text of the sonnet, and the TARGET is the reader/audience (Simpson, 1993: 90). Simpson’s PROCESS is absent but understood, owing to considerations of form. There is no novelistic reporting clause such as ‘said the poet’.

The other processes involved are material action processes of both intention and supervention; relational processes and a mental internalised perception process (‘That looks on tempests’).

Labelling the processes is a difficult exercise in this case because much of the poem’s transitivity involves a metaphorical blend in which a personified abstract concept takes on the role of animate ACTOR, and in addition, much of the ‘action’ of the poem is actually inaction. Moreover, the poem contains many expressions of negativity (not, never, no, nor…ever), which complicates matters further.

Who is the main actor or agent in the poem? 

The ACTORs are:

•’I/me’ (the speaker of the poem);

•‘love’ as abstract concept until the third quatrain when it appears as a personification;

•‘not love’;

•possibly no man in the final line, but there is ambiguity here. The words ‘nor no man ever loved’ could be taken to mean ‘I have never loved a man’ as well as ‘no man has ever been in love’. This depends on whether we understand ‘no man’ to be the ACTOR, or whether we consider the subject to be ‘I’ still, carried over from ‘I never writ’: it could be argued that the subject of the following phrase has been removed, but that ‘I’ is understood.

‘Love’ is the CARRIER of the poem’s attributive processes, and the IDENTIFIED of its identifying processes.

Who or what receives all the action? 

The action is distributed between the ACTORs, but it should be noted that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the material action intention processes actually refer to an action not being performed. Love as an abstract noun or personification is associated with that which is fixed, permanent and immovable. Any action attributed to Love is that of inaction, and movements such as altering and bending are associated with Love’s antithesis, ‘not love’. This call to inaction reflects the desire expressed in the first line of the sonnet that the poet should not ‘admit impediments’ to ‘the marriage of true minds’: namely, that the poet wishes to do nothing to hinder true love.

Is there a pattern for processes and participants in main clauses, compared with the pattern in subordinate clauses? 

Main clauses tend to feature relational processes, and the claim made by way of this process is explored further in the subordinate clauses through material action processes, either intention or supervention.

How can your annotated analysis help to support your sense of the meaning of the poem?  

In the opening lines of the sonnet, the speaker exhorts someone to prevent him or herself from embarking on a certain course of action. The remark could, of course, be self-directed – a ‘note to self’ not to act as described. It is the equivalent of a theatrical soliloquy, in which an actor shares his or her thoughts with the audience. The speaker expresses his/her desire not to act, or not to behave in a certain way, and one can see that throughout the rest of the poem the transitivity patterns support this call to inaction. Love is something fixed, immovable and enduring, whilst its antithesis (‘not love’) ‘alters’ and ‘bends’ when provoked to do so.

Having begun the sonnet with this exhortation, the speaker makes an abrupt switch in line 2 to an exploration of what love is not (and, by implication, what it is):

…; love is not love 

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove. 

Here a main clause contains two subordinate clauses, both relative, the second a reduced relative clause because ’which’ has been removed, but is understood. The transitivity of the main clause is that of a relational process, incorporating two material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where these latter processes are in themselves a metaphorical blend involving an inanimate abstract concept as ACTOR.

The relational process of the main clause is set against the material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where the ACTOR ‘not love’ intentionally alters or bends according to circumstances. Put bluntly, action is bad, inaction is good: a ‘still’ process encloses two action processes in which the participants behave in a way that would suggest this is not ‘a marriage of true minds’.

The morphological variations of the action-words enact the changes they describe: ‘alters’ (verb) becomes ‘alteration’ (noun); ‘the remover’ (determiner + noun) becomes ‘to remove’ (verb in infinitive). The change expressed in these two lines (‘alters’, ’bends’) is reflected on a different textual level in the changing word-formations.

In the second quatrain (lines 5-8), the poet moves the discussion on from what love is not, to what love is, and love as an abstract concept is explored through metaphors related to shipping. Once again, the action expressed in the material action intention processes is in fact inaction, and the abstract concept as ACTOR provides a metaphorical blend. Love, expressed as a ‘ever-fixèd mark’, is immobile in the face of a raging sea-storm and immovable regardless of the storm’s violence.

The nautical metaphor continues into the second half of the second quatrain, and love is now a ‘star’, most likely the ‘northern star’ or ‘Pole Star’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342). The star, like the ‘ever-fixèd mark’, serves as a guide to those who are lost (the ‘wandering bark’). The transitivity of line 8 is an attributive process, where the CARRIER is love (personified and metaphorically expressed), and the ATTRIBUTE is ‘of unknown worth’, in other words, invaluable or priceless. This same line balances that which cannot be measured (‘Whose worth’s unknown’) against that which can (‘although his height be taken’). The latter phrase extends the metaphorical references to shipping and navigation: ‘ “take height” was a regular term in navigation and astronomy’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342).

A star is fixed just as the ‘mark’ is fixed, and neither mark nor star can move. In addition, the measurement of the star’s height presumably represents a straight line, which is in contrast to the bending manifested by the ‘not love’ ACTOR and by Time’s sickle in the third quatrain.

The word ‘bends’ from line 4 reappears in one of its lemma forms as ‘bending’, and again, this word is associated with that which is not permanent and which is not love. The transitivity process here is a material action supervention process describing the appearance and action of Time’s scythe scooping up the ‘rosy lips and cheeks’ that are associated with youth and transience, and which serve metonymically here for the whole person. The word ‘compass’ will recall the shipping metaphor of the previous quatrain even though the sense is different here; nevertheless, ‘compass’ shares the same semantic field with the ‘star’ and the ‘wandering bark’.

In lines 11-12, Love as personification is involved in two material action intention processes in a metaphorical blend with a personified ACTOR, as follows:

ACTOR = Love (in personified form)

PROCESSES = 1) alters not, 2) bears it out.

When Love is finally involved in a transitivity process involving action, that action is to stay the same and to do nothing.

The sonnet ends with a rhetorical trick expressed as a hypothetical question which allows no disagreement. The reader has just read the sonnet written by the poet, so ‘I never writ’ is nonsensical in context, and given that this half of the line is untrue, then the second half (‘nor no man ever loved’) is also assumed to be untrue. The transitivity processes may well be those of material action intention process, but as seen several times before, the action referred to represents inaction – in this instance, not writing and not loving. However, because both statements are untrue, the action becomes a positive event: the poet did write the sonnet, people have loved each other, and therefore love must exist as the poet has described it.

List of references

Duncan-Jones, K. (Ed.) (1997) Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: The Arden Shakespeare.

Simpson, P. (1993) Language, Ideology and Point of View. London: Routledge.

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