Poetry has been used as a means of conveying thoughts, feelings and stories since humans began writing. There are many genres and styles; love being one of the more popular themes in the pre-1900 period. I will be looking at a selection of poems on this theme from the pre- 19th century selection in “Best Words”. The writers of the chosen poems are male because women were not widely accepted as writers at that time so a woman who chose writing as a profession often used a male pseudonym. The poems I have chosen to discuss are Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee…” and “Porphyria’s Lover”.
Although both poems are on the theme of love, “Shall I Compare Thee…” is more romantic. It is a sonnet in praise of a woman who is “more lovely” than a “summer’s day”. In the first quatrain the poet suggests that the woman is superior to a summer’s day, then begins to state summer’s imperfections. In the second quatrain there is a continuation of this idea:
“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,”
A change in the theme is introduced in the third quatrain with the word “But”. He then begins to talk about the woman herself and how she is lacking summer’s faults. He tells us that the woman will elude time and death.
“But thy eternal Sommer shall not fade,
Nor loose possession of that faire thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wandr’st in his shade,
When in eternall lines to time thou grow’st,”
These claims pose a question in the reader’s mind: “How can she live forever?” The final rhyming couplet explains these claims, which appear to be highly exaggerated, and answers the question. It says:
“So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
This means that she will continue to live through the poem and will come to life whenever it is read. Other art forms such as photography and paintings can be used to immortalise people.
Imagery has been used in numerous places throughout the poem. In the description of summer the sun is personified:
“His gold complexion dim’d,”
A metaphor is used to describe it as the “eye of heaven”. This metaphor is original and shows the writer’s skill; together these examples help the reader to visualise summer. Another use of personification is that of death, an abstract noun:
“Nor shall death brag thou wandr’st in his shade,”
The use of this metaphor helps to conjure a vivid image of death as the Grim Reaper in my mind.
Antiquated language and spelling such as “Thee”, “ow’st” and “loose” is used on many occasions throughout the poem. It adds to the romantic atmosphere and formality of the poem. The language used also sets it in the period of time in which it was written. In the 16th century this type of romantic praising of women was more popular.
This sonnet is in the same form as most of Shakespeare’s other 153 sonnets. This rhythm and rhyme scheme has a strong pattern to it. The poem has 12 lines with the rhyme scheme ABAB and then ends with a final rhyming couplet. The 12 lines are split into 3 quatrains, each with its own theme. This gives the poem a strong structure and the final rhyming couplet concludes the poem bringing it to a natural end.
The rhyme scheme emphasises the last word of each line. These words are strong: “declines”, “fade”, “shade”, therefore I do not think the poet has compromised his choice of words in order to preserve the rhyme scheme. The syllables of each line follow the pattern of iambic pentameter: 10 syllables with alternate stress. This makes the poem easier to read and also adds to the formality. Many features of this poem come together to make this a very formal sounding poem which is appropriate to the subject matter.
Although “Porphyria’s Lover” is on the theme of love, Robert Browning approaches the theme in an entirely different way to Shakespeare. Porphyria’s lover was extremely insecure and was afraid that, although Porphyria was “Perfectly pure and good”, she would leave him. He “debated what to do.” in order to preserve the moment when she was his, then strangled her. These actions are not what would normally be deemed romantic, yet they were the actions of a man who was deeply in love.
In the first few lines the poet describes the scene outside:
“The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:”
In this quatrain the wind is personified, bringing the scene to life. The initial setting of the scene makes the reader wary as storms and howling winds are often the first sign that something bad is about to happen in a film. This is an original way to commence a poem on the theme of love and I think it works well. This dismal scene creates a stark contrast with the room once Porphyria has entered it:
“She shut the cold out and the storm”
I think that sentence lets us know how much he worshiped and how dependent he was upon Porphyria. This kind of reliance could have been very romantic, but, as we find out later, he was an obsessive and possessive lover. Despite her entrance making “all the cottage warm;” the poem’s atmosphere remains cold and eerie.
Many examples of imagery can be found throughout the poem. They contribute to the eerie atmosphere and help the reader to visualise the scene inside the house. The hair with which she was strangled is described as “one long yellow string”. I thought it would be impossible to strangle someone with his or her hair but when described as “string” it brought a vision of a noose or garrotte to my mind making the scene seem very realistic.
The act of strangling her is described bluntly, in just three words: “And strangled her.” I think the choice of words here is important. The short sentence contrasts with the detailed, descriptive sentences leading up to it, which, for the reader, accentuates the severity of what he has done. However, I believe that the man himself is not shocked by what he has done, this was a calculated action in which he is trying to immortalise their love. Another strong line is:
“That moment she was mine, mine, fair,”
The repetition of “mine” tells us how possessive he is, I think this is the first “warning sign” of what he was about to do. The words sound almost psychopathic, as if his infatuation had forced him to become insane.
The man opened the dead Porphyria’s eyes and uses an effective simile to describe what he sees:
“As a shut bud that holds a bee,”
I can visualise him delicately prising her eyelids apart to expose the “blue eyes without a stain”. I think this simile is effective because although it may be an uncommon sight, it is one that everyone can imagine.
The rhythm and rhyme scheme of this poem is comparable to that of “Shall I Compare Thee…” as both are strong. This poem has lines of eight syllables each with alternate stress. I think the frequent cases of enjambment, that is, one line following on from the previous, make it hard to detect this scheme when the poem is read and aloud. Despite this, the rhythm gives it a strong structure that is easy to read and flows well. The rhyme scheme is ABAB although it is not so strict that the choice of words has been compromised in order to force the rhyme. The words that conclude each line are of significant importance: “endeavour”, “restrain” “spite” and I think the rhyme helps to emphasise these words.
I think Robert Browning was trying to make known to the reader the darker side of love and explain how acts of love are not always as romantic as the giving of flowers.
The poems are similar in their strong structures and imaginative use of imagery but I think Shakespeare and Browning have differing opinions of love. Both poems express the common desire of a lover for time to stand still but this desire is handled in two entirely different ways; one writes a poem, the other murders his loved one. Love, as a theme of poetry can be approached in a variety of forms and these two poems allow the reader to see what a romantic, or sinister, effect on a person love can have.