I have chosen to compare and contrast ‘Les Sylphides’ by Louis Macneice written after 1900 and ‘Sonnet 116’ by William Shakespeare written before 1900. I am comparing these two poems as the poets have very different opinions on true love. Shakespeare believes that true love will never end even after life while Macneice thinks that after marriage people grow apart because of everyday life. The two poems were written in different centuries so this could be why their opinion on love differs.
The poem presents the ‘life in a day’. The man who poet is writing about sees his whole life in a day. He cannot see the ballet ‘being short-sighted,’ which shows that he does love the girl in the poem as he is going to the ballet even though he cannot see it clearly.
Metaphorically speaking he is blind to the future; he is not seeing it clearly. He is short sighted about marriage and thinks it will be perfect. The ‘white skirts’ symbolise the purity and innocence as they do not know what marriage holds for them. The, ‘white skirts in the grey’ is misty and romantic but also shows again that the man cannot see clearly and the future is unclear to him. The tone in this stanza is very dreamy, like music. The ‘swell of the music’ makes us think of the swell of water which makes us imagine the ballerinas as ships in the sea.
The ballerinas’ dresses are like ‘calyx upon calyx’, flower buds opening and the different layers of the flower buds symbolise different layers of meaning. The ‘canterbury bells’ could symbolise wedding bells but also warning bells saying that marriage will not be as perfect as he thinks it will be. The mirror image of the flowers symbolises symmetry and the poet thinks there is symmetry in ballet and in life. He thinks that it will be perfect and even. He thinks he will just drift along in life ‘moving like seaweed’ with no direction.
In the third stanza he thinks that marriage will be perfect, ‘no separation’ and they will be together forever. The ‘white satin’ and ‘red sash’ is a very idealistic view of romance. He thinks love and marriage will be like a ballet.
In the fourth stanza, the rhythm changes abruptly, ‘the music stopped’. The ballet is over and he has to come back to reality. ‘The river had come to a lock’ where he must stop dreaming. The programmes ‘shuffle’ as people leave and the ballet ends and the romance ends. ‘To enter the lock and drop’ is to stop and enter into marriage and drop down into reality.
The next stanza is quick and sharp, no longer dreamy. They find that instead of bringing them closer together marriage brings them apart. They are separated by reality of everyday life.
At the last stanza, the poem changes to the woman’s point of view. All gets from her husband’s breathing is comfort and it is sad all she has in her marriage is security. She thinks her life has passed by, ‘the river had flowed away’ and all her dreams are gone. The romance has disappeared and like the ballet, is no longer in their lives.
Shakespeare begins the poem by saying he does not want to stand in the way of true love. He tells us that true love will not change when the things around us change:
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.
No one is able to take it away from you if it is true love. If love alters it is not true love.
In the second quatrain he begins ‘O, no!’ which emphasises what he is saying. The tone is assertive which shows he is very sure about what he is saying. He says it is always there and is like a guiding light to a ship. Love will guide and help you through life. Also he compares love with the star as a star is beautiful as is love. He is saying at that love is priceless and it will remain steady:
It is the star to every wand’ring bark, whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
In the next quatrain he is says ‘love’s not time’s fool’ meaning that love will remain although we become old and lose our youth and beauty, love can withstand it. Time cuts through everything with its ‘bending sickle compass’, it does not slow down. Everything but love is affected by time and it stays constant. Love does not transend.
In the last quatrain of the poem Shakespeare says that true love lasts until the end of the world and even lives through death:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.
It can rise above the transience of life. The rhyming couplet at the end is a riddle and is not quite as serious as the rest of the poem. He is saying that if what he is saying is not true he has never written anything and no man has ever loved. This shows he believes very strongly in what he is saying in this poem.
These poets’ view of love differ greatly. Perhaps it is because they were written in different centuries and love was viewed differently because of lifestyle etc. Women before 1900 looked after the children and had to be content because they were regarded as second class citizens. They looked after their husbands and perhaps they were happier in their marriages. After 1900 women began working and after they got married they left their jobs and became unhappy with only taking care of their children and this could affect their marriage.
‘Les Sylphides’, which is written after 1900, has a pessimistic tone to it and is saying true love does not exist. Love ends with marriage and the reality of everyday life will separate a couple. In the end all we get from marriage is security. It seems that Macneice does not believe in Shakespeare’s opinion of true love.
Sonnet 116 has a more optimistic view on love. Shakespeare believes love to be never ending and true love will endure through anything life throws at you. He even believes that true love lasts beyond life.