VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature                                        page 17 of 20
English 112 (English Composition II)

Symbolism in Sonnet 116

A traditional symbol, like a nation's flag, represents that nation. In the U.S. flag, the stars not only represent each state, but the red stripes represent the blood of the 1776 Revolution, while the white stripes represent the purity of American democratic ideals.

A symbol is any object that has extra meaning for the culture (like a cross or a swastika) or maybe just for the poet (like Sylvia Plath's German ancestry in her poems).

In Sonnet 116, two possible symbols are star and Time. If Time refers to Father Time, then the poet is calling to mind a cultural symbol, one that we see every New Year's Eve. At the end of our time, Death awaits, and Father Time can be associated with Death to give lines 9-10 a more threatening tone, but that might be pushing an interpretation too far. Father Time is, of course, a personification, too. So the speaker of this poem considers Time to be like a human enemy that can be tricked or conquered.

The star, hints the poet, is the North Star. Would it be too much to associate this star with "the Star of Bethlehem" that guided the 3 magi to find Jesus? That might be too much; besides that star supposedly was in the East.

So Father Time is a traditional symbol for the passing of youth and life. The guiding star is also a traditional symbol, but it probably isn't a reference to the magi's star.

A building, like the Roman Colisseum, can also represent the empire that built it, as well as abstract ideas, such as power or the temporary nature of power, depending on the context in which it appears. So private meanings can be associated with famous objects.
Even activities like surfing can be used to represent abstractions, such as personal freedom, or other activities, such as using a computer to find data. So symbolism can be defined by a whole culture, by several people with something in common, or by one poet for one poem.
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