The first poem, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 is a sixteenth century poem which deals with the subject true love and celebrates its perpetual and unbending nature. This argument is presented in three successive quatrains and is concluded in a final rhyming couplet. The poet begins the poem by telling us that true love, “the marriage of two minds,” does not waver or weaken when external situations change,
“…Love is not love when,
Which alters when’t alteration finds,
And that even if some element of the relationship is removed the love will remain strong.
In the second quatrain the speaker begins to explore what love is in terms of an extended metaphor of the “ever-fixed mark,” the North Star to explain the sureness of love. The North Star does not change wherever you are. This image would be more familiar to the Elizabethan reader, who understands the importance of using the North Star as a navigational aid during storms. It is a good choice of image even if it is from another world and another time .The poet explains to us that even though he is trying to describe love, its importance can not be defined.
“Whose worth unknown, although his height be taken.”
In the third quatrain Shakespeare tells us that love dose not alter with time. He personifies “Time” and “Love”. Even though our looks will fade over time and eventually we will die this will not end love between two people.
“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears out even to the edge of doom.”
This is very true of couples who love long after a partner is dead.
The Rhyming couplet tells us that all that has been stated in the poem is true and if it is not the he has “never writ, nor no man ever loved,” in other words, it is an absolute certainty.
“If this be error, and upon me proved,
Then I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
We move from the sixteenth century to the seventeenth century for the next poem on the theme of love with Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which both mocks and simultaneously celebrates the tradition of courtly love, which has its origins in the fourteenth century. In courtly love convention the ardent lover is besotted by his “lady” who is unattainable to him. The courtly love poem exaggerates the beauty of the woman and flatters her physical features in response to unrequited love. However in this poem, the persona is trying to seduce his “mistress” into making love with him. This differs from courtly love in that courtly love was always unfulfilled in terms of sexual passion. The title is “To His Coy Mistress,” and therefore Marvell is not is not the speaker, he is merely an onlooker.
The persona begins by telling his mistress that if they had all the time in the world then her “coyness” would be appropriate and he would spend all of eternity carefully praising her honour and beauty. The time scale which he employs takes from the great flood in the story of Noah’s arc in the Old Testament to the conversion of the Jews in the New Testament. This vast time scale is an example of poetic hyperbole and signifies the great pain in the pining for love and waiting for it to be returned.
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.”
Shakespeare would agree with the timeless quality of true love but we must bring into question whether this mans intentions are so pure as that of Shakespeare.
The persona tells us that over time the lover’s passion would grow like a “vegetable love,” this double-entendre would both shock and amuse readers of the time. The persona begins to tell us how long he would spend meticulously flattering each of her features which sounds to me almost ridiculous,
“A hundred years to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast
But thirty thousand to the rest;”
The last thing he mentions is her heart, this is in an attempt to show that he does not just want her in bed, but I think his “mistress” would know better. He believes she deserves such extravagant praise but he then suddenly introduces rather cunningly the idea of payment,
“Nor would I love at a lower rate.”
In the second stanza the pace begins to quicken, as he gives his mistress the final argument. That is, that they don’t have all the time in the world but rather “Time” is racing quickly and they must act with haste,
Times winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Vast deserts of eternity.”
He does not talk about the eternal quality of love as in Shakespeare’s poem. “Love is times fool without doubt.” We can see how this poem differs from traditional courtly love, because all this man wants is sex whereas courtly love remains decidedly unrequited.
The idea of time moving quickly is emphasised as he talks about “Times winged chariot.” crossing the sky with each dawn. He reminds her that if she waits too long her beauty will undoubtedly fade and she will die without experiencing the excitement and joy of sexual love. He points to the inevitable death, which awaits us all. Images associated with death are used such as “Marble gates,” “worms,” “ashes,” and “dust.” This is likely to be an unattractive idea for her to grasp. She is again praised in his final attempt to get this woman into bed. Her ripe, “youthful hue,” is an incentive to give into her own desires as well,
“Now let us sport while we may
And now like amorous birds of prey,
Rather once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.”
He is confident enough to believe that she will give in to his argument.
The double-entendre makes his intentions even clearer.
“Let us role all our strength and all
Our sweetness into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life.”
I was quite surprised to see such suggestive imagery in a poem from so long ago.
The poem ends wittily as the speaker states that even though they can not make time stand still, they can make it fly with pleasure,
“Thus we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we can make him run.”
The final poem “First Love” by John Clare was written in the nineteenth century and describes his feelings as he discovers his first love. On first impressions it is rhythmic and whimsical in its tone but the subject matter is much deeper. In the first stanza the poet describes how he feels when he first sees this rich farmer’s young daughter. The impact of his first love is both physical,
“My face turned pale as deadly pale
my legs refused to walk away,”
and dramatic it is obvious that this is the first time he has experienced this overwhelming emotion
“I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet.
He is completely awe struck and in a state of shock,
“Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.”
I liked the way he believes that in her he can find no fault,
“And when she looked, what could I ail?
In the second stanza the writer continues to describe his feelings and emotions over this girl and he feels dazed and almost confused by the splendour of this woman,
“And then the blood rushed to my face
And took my sight away.
He says that it seemed “midnight at noonday” perhaps the idea of midnight being the witching hour means that the poet feels that this woman has him under her spell. When we hear the line
“They spoke as chords do from the string”
We think of a backdrop of romantic music with the angels playing gently on their harps. This is very sentimental by my way of thinking.
Again in the third stanza we find of soft gentle imagery, The flowers, the bed of snow but he is still confused as instead of bed of flowers and winter snow he mixes up these two images,
“Are flowers the winter’s choice?
Is loves bed always snow?
This gives the impression that he is so taken in by this woman that he is confused. We also learn that the poet believes that this magnificent woman can sense his admiration,
“She seemed to hear my silent voice
and love’s appeal to know.”
However he concludes by telling us that he has lost his heart to this woman and will be forever fixated on her as the image of his first love.
The three poems show different views of love or partnership. Shakespeare looks at everlasting true love while Marvell uses the tradition of courtly love to demonstrate his argument for sexual pleasure and Clare presents a sad picture of a disappointing first love which is not returned with the same passionate intensity that the young man feels. All are challenging and interesting for the reader and even after all this time can still be related to modern day situations.