Love is portrayed as a strong emotion in both an optimistic and pessimistic way in nearly all pre-1914 love poetry. When love is presented as pessimistic, for example Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ or Lord Byron’s ‘When We Two Parted’ it is usually with a harsh tone of rue and lament, whereas when love is presented as optimistic, like in Rossetti’s ‘A Birthday’ or Clare’s ‘First Love’ it is usually a traditional, conventional love that has a huge impact on the poet.
Keats’ shows the physical impact love can have in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, a ballad which describes how a young knight falls in ‘love at first sight’ with a mystifying woman upon meeting her for the first time. He is hit suddenly, and is physically weakened by the woman, “full beautiful – a faery’s child”. The knight is left with “anguish moist and fever dew”. The reader learns that after the woman leaves he begins to feel ill, and is left “alone and palely loitering” for her to return. We learn that love has had a negative effect on him.
The poem is written in a ballad form and Keats uses archaic language, which is consistent with the poem’s medieval theme, given the presence of the knight in the poem. Ballads were originally part of the oral tradition, a well-known literary tradition. The ballad is a very old form of poetry, it was used long ago when many people couldn’t read so usually took the form of a type of song so it was easy to remember, therefore the poem’s structure adds to the story-telling theme because the poem is a conversation – the knight is telling the other person about the woman who he has fallen in love with.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci can be interpreted as a poem that focuses on drug addiction – the woman is the drug and lures the knight in until he is ‘addicted’ to her. The ways he sees the woman are dreamlike and out of this world which could be interpreted as the result of taking a hallucinogenic drug. The way the knight is described is also how drug addicts are often portrayed, “haggard”, “woe-begone” and “palely loitering”. In Clare’s ‘First Love’, the poet presents love much like Keats. Clare explains how love “struck” – emphasising how sudden and quick it was, almost like lightning hitting him.
He describes love as “so sudden and so sweet”. The repetition of ‘so’ and the alliteration of the ‘s’ shows how strong the feeling actually was. Clare illustrates the physical effects that the girl has on him, “blood rushed to my face” and for him it “seemed midnight at noonday” which shows he has lost all concept of time because he is so in awe of this girl. This really communicates to the reader the effect love has had on him, it so intense that Clare writes “blood burnt around my heart”, conveying that the feeling is so powerful it hurts.
The alliteration on the ‘b’ makes a strong and definite sound as the feeling Clare is trying to convey is so strong. Most of the verbs Clare uses, for example “stole” “struck” and “rushed” illustrate a distinct lack of control, and the speed at which the feeling hit him. The enjambment and regular rhyme scheme also enforce this. Clare is suddenly hit by the girl’s beauty, “her face bloomed like a sweet flower”. The word “sweet” conjures images of youth and purity, and describing her face like a flower shows he thinks she is fragile and beautiful, to him she is almost perfect; he is presenting love as a natural, simple feeling.
The simple structure of the poem backs this idea up. The poem’s tone is innocent and light, and the nature imagery of the flower re-establishes the purity of Clare’s feeling of love for this girl. A lot of 19th century love poetry contained nature imagery using flowers etc as it is effective at conveying innocence and purity, because it was comparing a woman to a flower, showing that her beauty is like that of a flower, serene and demure, natural and virtuous – these were both very important in that time.
Similar to ‘First Love’ is ‘A Birthday’ by Christina Rossetti. Rossetti also uses nature imagery, for example “my heart is like a singing bird” and “my heart is like an apple tree”, however she also uses rich and luxurious imagery to describe her love coming to her, “raise me a dais of silk and down” and, “hang it with vair and purple dyes”. Rossetti’s poem could be alternatively interpreted to have religious meaning as it isn’t clear who her love actually is and whether it is romantic love like in Clare’s ‘First Love’ or whether it is simply celebrating her faith.
The girl Clare describes in ‘First Love’ is portrayed as perfect, which was a stereotypical view of women at the time – they were raised up on pedestals and where the object of their suitor’s eye. In complete contrast to this is the poem, ‘A Woman to Her Lover’ by Christina Walsh. She makes is quite clear that her idea of love is “co-equal” and she doesn’t want to be thought of as someone “whose every deed and word and wish is golden”, or to be “a wingless angel who can do no wrong” – implying that she does not want to be the stereotypical idea of how Victorian women should be, “wingless” -trapped.
The typical view of women at the time was that they should be pure and innocent; this is much the same as how Clare treats the woman in ‘First Love’. In the poem, Walsh tells her lover what she doesn’t want from a relationship – she says she doesn’t want to be his slave, or be put on a pedestal or only be there for his “clamorous desire”, which shows her protest to being a sexual object. She emphasizes this by using words like “abasement” “shame” and “pity”, showing that in her opinion, any man who wishes for his has low moral standards.
The poem is made up of four stanzas and in the last stanza she tells her lover what she does want; “I shall be your comrade, friend and mate” – she wants her relationship to be based upon mutual love and respect. The first three stanzas have an angry tone, and are written almost like a persuasive argument. Rossetti’s anger is emphasized by her use of exclamation marks, for example when she writes “I am no doll to dress and sit for feeble worship, if that be what you ask, fool, I refuse you! ”
The last stanza of the poem rejects the Victorian views of the time, she describes how she wishes for equal and mutual love in her relationship which shows that she holds her relationships in high regard and they are not superficial. This is in contrast with poems like ‘First Love’ which show a much more traditional view on love, and portray women as fragile and delicate creatures that should be worshipped. Walsh focuses on the kind of relationship she is looking for by using imagery like “hand holding hand”, this imagery paints a picture of harmony between the two people and reciprocated love.
The alliteration on the ‘h’ also emphasizes this. Walsh also writes, “We may know the purity and height, of passion” to illustrate the love between the two people and the synchronization of both man and woman. The poem itself could be Walsh addressing her partner, telling him what she wants and doesn’t want from their relationship, or it could be Walsh herself, speaking out to men on behalf of all the women of her time, telling men how relationships should be and how women should be treated. This is considered a very modern and revolutionary idea for the time.
A Woman to Her Lover’ and ‘First Love’ both show love as a happy feeling, having a positive effect on the poet. Although, love is also exposed to have negative aspects, for example in ‘A Woman to Her Lover’, and ‘My Last Duchess’ which is set in the Renaissance period. It is a dramatic monologue from a possessive husband,; a very rich and obviously powerful Duke to a silent listener. The poem starts with the Duke describing his wife’s personality. In doing this he exposes a side to him that is overly proud, obsessive, controlling and power-hungry. He talks of the woman in question with no love or affection, even though he was married to her.
It eventually becomes apparent that he had her killed because he thought she was not giving him the attention and obedience he thought he should get. He describes his wife as “trifling” The kind of relationship the Duke wants with his wife – to show him complete submission is exactly the kind of relationship Walsh ridicules in her poem ‘A Woman to Her Lover’. The Duke says his last duchess “had a heart… too soon made glad” and was “too easily impressed”. He says “she looked on, and her looks went everywhere” implying that she was too flirtatious.
He thought that “he had given her a “nine-hundred-years-old name” and for this privilege he assumed he should have a wife that was prepared to submit totally to him. He seems to talk in a casual conversational tone, and manages to cleverly give away that he had a role in her death by stating, “I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together” it is his intention to give this away as he clearly thinks he has not done anything wrong in having her killed; he thinks that it was his right due to the fact that she wasn’t as obedient as he would have liked, he obviously thinks he is above the law, because he tells a complete stranger this.
He thinks his money and name make him ‘untouchable’, showing how arrogant he really is. The Duke seems not to care about his wife, but he gives himself away when he shows his anger, “sir, ‘t was all one! ” the exclamation mark shows how annoyed he is, so his last wife is obviously still playing on his mind. This is also shown when he pulls back the curtain that covers the portrait. He says, “None puts by the curtain I have drawn for you, but I” showing his possessive streak again, indicating he still wants control over her even though she is dead.
It is clear to the reader that the Duke’s idea of a wife is something to show off, a ‘trophy wife’ almost like an item in a collection. The Duke likes to collect beauty around him, for example the painting of his last duchess and the statue of Neptune that he shows off to the listener on their way out, and he tries to impress the listener by boasting that “Claus of Innsbruck”, obviously a well-known name, had made the statue for him. He also shows off that “Fra Pandolf” painted the picture of his last duchess.
It is obvious that the Duke is looking for a wife who will completely succumb to his every need, and one who is beautiful and deemed flawless, and he will not settle for anything less. To the reader it is clear that the Duke has a completely materialistic view of what a wife should be, and would never even think of partaking in a relationship with “co-equal love” and mutual respect, like in ‘A Woman to Her Lover’. Similar to ‘My Last Duchess’ is ‘When We Two Parted’ by Lord Byron.
The poem is about the end of a romantic and passionate affair of the heart, and shows the regret the poet has once the affair is over. The lovers have separated and the poet gets to hear that the woman has since had other affairs which have resulted in her gaining a bad reputation. Byron writes, “I hear thy name spoken, and share in its shame” meaning that when he hears people taking about the woman, he is ashamed to be associated with her because she has such a bad reputation now.
There is also a lot of alliteration on the ‘s’ sounds whish stresses the secrecy of their affair, as it is almost like the sound ‘Sshh’ which is used to silence people. He is obviously bitter about the relationship, and feels like he doesn’t know the woman at all anymore because she has changed so much. He shows this by saying “how should I greet thee? – in silence and tears”. This ending is also very similar to how the poem starts off, indicating that the poet has not moved on and is still in love with the woman.
It also shows that although they were lovers, he feels he doesn’t know her anymore and doesn’t know how to greet the woman because what he has found out about her has changed his feelings so much. To conclude, I think that the poets’ portrayal of love is varied depending on what stage love is at for the poet, for example in Byron’s ‘When We Two Parted’ which is full of lament and bitterness because he has found out his previous lover has moved on and has gained a bad reputation in doing so.
The poem reflects his feelings because the tone is one of resentment. In complete contrast to this is Clare’s ‘First Love’ in which describes the beginnings of love as exciting and mystifying, but a happy experience, full of innocence, purity and virtuousness. A lot of pre-1914 poets seem to have almost the same opinion on one principle of love, illustrated in ‘A Woman to Her Lover’, whereby a couple have mutual respect and love for each other and the partnership has a “co-equal love”.
When this is put into practice, happiness is usually seen to be the outcome, as in ‘A Birthday’. However, when love goes wrong, i. e. there is no mutual respect and admiration, or the love isn’t reciprocated, the result is usually depressing or pessimistic, like in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ or ‘My Last Duchess’. In my opinion, most poets’ views on love are characteristic of the conventional optimistic and romantic view, which however is sometimes unrealistic.