Representations of Romantic Love in Poetry Across the Periods

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Romantic love has been the subject of endless contemplation for poets of all periods. Intangible and complex, love is the highest manifestation of humanity. No topic in poetry has received more attention than romantic love. Conversely, the ultimate expression of love is through poetry. In each poetic period, the representation of romantic love has been informed by the social and cultural values of the time. Thus, across time, attitudes towards romantic love have shifted with changing values and beliefs. ‘Sonnet 130’ by William Shakespeare from the Elizabethan period, ‘Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ by John Donne from the metaphysical period, and ‘Lullaby’ by W.H. Auden from the modern period are three poems that clearly reflect the changing representations of romantic love across time.

The Elizabethan period in which William Shakespeare wrote was a time of cultural renaissance in England. Sonnets were written for the entertainment of the court, and often expressed highly artificial representations of love. Elizabeth I popularised the convention of courtly love by positioning herself as the Virgin Queen, a goddess to be worshipped from afar. The discourse of masculinity positioned the man as the hunter in pursuit of the unattainable. Women were idealised as physical objects of beauty, virtue and perfection. It was part of the tradition of courtly love to declare through exaggerated and effusive poetry that one’s beloved had virtually no human qualities. All her qualities were divine. Poets privileged the physical and the aesthetic in representations of romantic love, and thereby failed to recognise the mind and intellect of the woman. In this environment, Shakespeare wrote ‘Sonnet 130’ to directly contest courtly love.

The sonnet is a satire of the conventional love sonnet popular in the Elizabethan period. The conversational rhythm, which departs from the strict iambic pentameter of the sonnet form, is indicative of the light-hearted mockery of...
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