The following essay will focus on three pre 1914 sonnets and I will explore the themes of love and loss within them. The poems that I will be looking at are, ‘Sonnet 71’ by William Shakespeare, ‘Remember’ by Christina Georgina Rossetti and ‘I Am’ by John Clare. All three poems agree that love and loss are inevitably linked and that the easiest way to deal with the loss of someone that you love is to forget them rather than come to terms with the loss itself.
Some say, that without loss, you will not be able to love, because loss makes you appreciate and be grateful for the love that you do have from all the people that love you. However, these poems look at loss from a slightly different perspective. They focus more on the fear of loss, rather than the idea of loss enhancing your appreciation for love. Shakespeare’s approach to love in his poem, ‘Sonnet 71’, is a very selfless one with subtle undertones of bitterness.
From the first line we see that he wants his lover to be happy once he has passed, and doesn’t want her to ‘mourn’ over him when he is dead. This selflessness shows he has only his lover’s best interest at heart. Throughout the poem, it seems as though he is fighting between being selfless or bitter because he attempts to be selfless but can’t help but feel bitter at the same time, and this shows. Perhaps his bitterness is aimed at the ‘vile world’, or the society which maybe took away his freedom and time with his lover, which he is resentful for.
He seems to sacrifice his memory of him with her, so that she remains happy. He knows that after a passing, people are normally sad and mournful, but he tells her that he doesn’t want to be remembered if it is to make her mournful, since he doesn’t want to cloud her ‘sweet thoughts’ with regret and mournfulness of him- he’d rather that her love for him ‘decays’, as he would when he dies. Although he is very selfless, we see he slips into feeling sorry for himself, when he tells her not to ‘rehearse’ his ‘poor’ name.
Also, we see the bitterness in this poem reflected in some irony, when he speaks of the ‘wise world’. It is almost as though he is being sarcastic, and mocking the world back, because he has just described the world as being ‘vile’ and now suddenly, ‘wise’. He doesn’t want the ‘wise world’ to mock his lover’s ‘moan’. So, really, everything said is a suggestion of his personality, however, he never directs or speaks of the bitterness towards her; just everything that affected his relationship. Unlike Shakespeare, Rossetti isn’t bitter at all.
She sees loss as a natural part of being in love, whereas Shakespeare admits loss is inevitable, but resents it. She does express some sadness, but doesn’t have a bitter feeling towards anyone or anything and doesn’t blame anyone either, whereas Shakespeare blames the world and society. For example, in the second line of ‘Remember’, she talks of passing into the ‘silent land’. This gives an image to the reader of a peaceful place to come, maybe a silent graveyard or even heaven, or maybe it is ‘silent’ because she is unable to communicate with her lover anymore.
However, Shakespeare tells his lover to warn the world that he has ‘fled’, ‘with vilest worms to dwell’. This shows that he feels he passes from one horrible place to another- from a ‘vile world’ to go and live with ‘vilest worms’. From the word ‘fled’ we would assume that he is fleeing to a better place from where he is fleeing from, but in this case, it is not so. Also, he has a very protective tone in his poem, because he wants to protect his lover from the world. He wants to protect her from the world mocking her, and he wants to protect her from grief.
Shakespeare wants to be forgotten altogether, however, Rossetti wants all the good memories and times to be remembered only, not so her lover can grieve on his loss, but so that he can cherish all the times they had together. We can see the language differences in the two poets. We notice that Shakespeare uses very harsh, direct, and sarcastic words, whereas, Rossetti uses soft, peaceful, and harmonious words. The two language variations and word choices help the readers to realize the different feelings that each poets hold on the view of love, loss and death.
The different takes that the two poets have on loss could be due to their backgrounds. Rossetti was a very religious person, devoted to the Church of England, who wrote a range of devotional, romantic, and children’s poems. Her religious beliefs were so strong that she broke off her engagement when she found out that her fiance was a Roman catholic. She could have a very religious view on death and passing over, which is why the main tone in her sonnet is very peaceful and accepting, with hints of sadness.
For example, we see how she speaks of the things her lover will never be able to do, like ‘hold’ her ‘by the hand’, and how it will be too late to ‘counsel and pray’. She discusses all the things she’ll lose; however, she never turns to bitterness, just sadness. Because of the times of when the engagement broke off and when she wrote this sonnet, the meaning behind it could be a very indirect goodbye note to her fiance. She doesn’t want him to grieve over her rejection, but rather to move on maybe. This sonnet could have many meanings or messages, this being one of them.
Or, it could be like the Shakespearean sonnet- a piece of early advice on how to deal with grief for when the poets pass away. Rossetti also talks about how loss can affect the image one holds of their lover. For example, after some ones death, your memory of them may become hazy, faded or changed. In Rossetti’s sonnet, she explores this idea of darkness and corruption making her lovers image of her altered, leaving a ‘vestige of thoughts’. Both Shakespeare’s and Rossetti’s poems have the general message that they would not want to hurt their lovers, if remembering them causes this.
The last two lines in both sonnets have the same message, but, with the use of different words, the tone differentiates. Evidence of this is the way Shakespeare uses the word, ‘lest’ at the start of the sentence. It is almost as though it is an explanation for all that has been said just incase she needs it. The word itself adds a slight negativity to the whole poem. Also, Shakespeare only seems to see the conclusive physical condition of his life, which is negative and bitter, for example, passing to dwell with ‘vilest worms’.
On the other hand, Rossetti sees the conclusive spiritual condition of her life, which is positive, for example, her passing into the ‘silent land’. Although these two poets talk about the future and what is to come, in John Clare’s sonnet, ‘I Am’, he describes to us what it feels like to be forgotten, even though he has not yet passed away. During his stay at Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Clare wrote the sonnet ‘I Am’ which was his view on life at the time.
He felt lonely and left out and from the first line in the poem, you can easily see how he feels and what he thinks. Clare writes, ‘I am- yet what I am none cares or knows’. This is expressing how he felt in the loneliness of the asylum. Although he was not diagnosed at the time, Clare suffered from manic depression and bipolar disorder, which caused him to fall into periods of over excitement or periods of depression. Maybe it was in the period of depression that he was driven to write this poem.
He describes how his friends have forsaken and forgotten about him. He feels that when they are locking him out, they are ‘stifling’ him and he is feeling the physical effects of it, in what he calls ‘nothingness’ as he feels he is ‘oblivious’ to others around him because they have done that to him. The second line shows the direct feeling of the alienation Clare is being put through. However, referring back to his manic depression, maybe this wasn’t the case, and he just felt it because of the disorder itself, and not because of others blocking him out.
This isolation may have hit him so hard that he feels he is the only one there for himself which is maybe why he describes himself as the ‘self-consumer’ of his own ‘woes’. Like Shakespeare, he has a negative view of the world, where he describes life as nothing but ‘scorn and noise’, ‘where there is neither sense of life or joys’. He also has a bitter perspective of society and life. Clare also writes in his poem, ‘Even the dearest, that I love the best/ Are strange- nay, rather stranger than the rest’.
I think that this line summarizes the direct relation between love and loss because it is evidence that the more you love someone the stranger or harder it is to come to terms with their loss. When in the asylum, it was almost as if Clare gives a taste of death, because he has been forgotten by everyone but he does not have the luxury of being able to forget everyone else himself, so he lives knowing he is forgotten even before he dies, and no matter how hard he tries to forget everyone else, their memories are still with him. Although we know how Clare feels at this time and how much he hates it, we also know of the place he dreams to be.
He ‘longs for scenes where man has never trod/ A place where woman never smiled or wept’. This shows he wants to go somewhere where there is no creation and where no emotions are shown. In this way, no one will have to experience love so they can’t lose. With no emotions, he is happier and at peace. He wants to abide with his God, ‘and sleep as’ he ‘in childhood sweetly slept’. Here he uses repetition and sibilance. This gives a sweet, soft tone to the whole poem as he begins to move from the horrors of life to the sweet places he dreams to be. The poem has a somber tone and makes the reader see the world from Clare’s perspective.