Love is perhaps the most expressed topic in media, since forever. The word ‘love’ is extremely ambiguous, able to be expressed in multiple ways. Love is often described as a double edged sword. It can mean all there is to one, an experience to be desired and pursued. To others, love is a poison, a drug, which slowly eats away your life and leaves you as nothing but an empty shell. Depending on who you are, love could mean either of these things. Or it could mean both. Poets too, have their own opinions on the subject of love, and often convey their feelings through their works of literacy. Examples of conflicting views on love can be seen expressed by the poets Browning, Keats, Shakespeare, Rossetti and Donne. How do these poets explore ideas of loyalty, love and relationships in their most well known poems?
A popular recurring theme featured in love poetry is the theory of true, eternal love. A kind of love which supasses all other infatuations and is often mentioned as ‘the most beautiful gift given to humanity’. Shakespeare expresses his belief of this theory in his 116th sonnet. Written in the 17th century, a time of which poets wrote about the mystical and metaphysical, sonnet 116 really stands out as among others poems as a deep and meaningful one, and serves as a semi-serious guide to love. In sonnet 116, Shakespeare expresses his view on loyalty in love, in which he writes: “Love is not love which alters with alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.” His view is thus; he believes that true love is so powerful, that once acquired, cannot be broken, even if it “bends with the remover to remove”, meaning if a partner were to be disloyal, true love would still still stay unbroken. Shakespeare also believes that it would be wrong in trying to separate two true lovers, as seen here: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds, admit impediments.” He sees a true couple as almost a religious blessing, as he refers to the marriage tradition, asking for reasons of which a couple should not be wed. Shakespeare later writes: “O no! It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken. It is the star to every wandering bark, whose worth's unknown, although its height be taken”. Again, Shakespeare is comparing true love to lighthouses and bright stars, suggesting that true love guides people to comfort, safety and happiness. He could also be expressing his thoughts on relationships, suggesting that even when things go bad, true love will still guide you through tough times and can repair your relationships. Shakespeare again, states that true love is forever, even though physical beauty will deteriorate, it will stay unbroken until the end of time. (“Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks, within his bending sickle’s compass come: love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”)
Loyalty is an extremely important element which keeps relationships together. Many modern poets write about the sadness and depression they experience as a result of lost love. Browning’s no different from the rest. He too, believes that loyalty is key in love and he conveys his thoughts through his dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’. The poem was written in the romantic era (nineteenth century) and served as one of the greatest works of literacy at the time. ‘My Last Duchess’ shocked many with its dramatic context, and amazed many more with its hidden messages and its colourful suggestions. In ‘My Last Duchess’, Browning demonstrates the disastrous consequences of a lack of loyalty in love, and this is mainly shown through the death of a partner. Death is an arguably common occurrence in poems involving love and ‘My Last Duchess’ is an excellent example of how effective death can bring out the importance of loyalty. The poem is not divided into sections of any sense, resulting in it seeming like an everyday conversation. The poem also features a first person narrator, and this all adds up to the realism behind the poem. It should also be noted that the poem contains minimal imagery and again, this is to create a realistic scene and situation. Browning believed that love is nothing of fantasy, and he is trying to convey that love is very real and must be taken seriously. In ‘My Last Duchess’, Browning writes “since none puts by the curtains I have drawn for you”, this is suggesting that the Duke is incredibly possessive and he could be possibly suggesting that in real life, men have their wicked qualities and it could be the downfall of a relationship. Later in the poem, Browning describes the duchess as “too easily impressed”, and “T’was not her husband’s presence only, called that spot of joy into the duchess’ cheek”. This hints that the duchess could be lacking in her loyalty, or being unfaithful to the Duke of Ferrara. As a result, the duke has the duchess killed, which blatantly shows the evil and jealousy in humans, and demonstrates how many relationships are built up on the foundation of false love, which results in lack of loyalty. This can be linked to Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, which implies that love is commonplace, but true love is beautiful and rare. Browning’s view on love is thus: love is no game, relationships mustn't be taken lightly, loss of loyalty can cause catastrophes. Browning seems to be implying that until the duke finds true love, he will not stop killing his wives (as he seems unfazed with filling in the emissary with the details and reasons for his act of murder). However, this view contradicts slightly with Shakespeare’s view on true love, in which unfaithfulness does not cause relationships to waver.
Another good poem showcasing the consequences of unfaithfulness would be ‘The Apparition’ by 17th century poet, John Donne. Again, this poem deals with death, and although this time, it is metaphorical, it still fits in beautifully among 17th century poetry, which focuses on the metaphysical. The story is of a woman being unfaithful towards her now ex-partner, and Donne relates the feeling of abandonment with death. Within ‘The Apparition’, Donne uses a plethora of (unpleasant) sexual imagery and suggestive themes: “in worse arms shall see; then thy sicke taper will begin to winke, and he whose art then being tyr’d before”, which suggests that unfaithfulness bears consequence for both individuals within a couple, as the unfaithful partner is being neglected and mistreated. Donne is also using a lot of euphemistic language, e.g. “sicke taper”, which may stand for something less pleasant. Donne’s attempt to cover up this sexual imagery could suggest that he is trying to cover his love for this ex-lover. Later in ‘The Apparition’, the lines “bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lye” can be presented as a cold, cruel scene, as quicksilver (mercury) is seen as a poisonous metal, which could suggest that disloyalty in relationships could result in a poisonous or corrupted life. Near the end of ‘The Apparition’, Donnes writes “since my love is spent, I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent”, and this shows Donne’s belief of which disloyalty completely destroys people, caused him to wish the worst to befall upon her.
Another poem on the topic of disloyalty would be Christina Rossetti’s ‘Cousin Kate’. Written in the romantic period (19th century), this poem tells the story of a cottage maiden who suffers from the effects of unfaithfulness and rejection. In ‘Cousin Kate’, the narrator who is described as “contented among my cottage mates, not mindful I was fair”, is neglected by her lover. By writing that even the most sensible and fair women could be destroyed by lack of loyalty, Rossetti could be suggesting that unfaithfulness is a force so powerful, it can wreck even the strongest bonds. In ‘Cousin Kate’, Rossetti writes “Call me an outcast thing”, this shows that Rossetti believes that a failure in love causes people to face the negatives the society endows her, and suggests that love is often unjust. However, Rossetti, like Donne, believes in justice and near the end of ‘Cousin Kate’, she reveals and talks about her child, who is described as “my shame, my pride”, and notes that since cousin Kate cannot bear children, the lord will remain childless and she feels that even though disloyalty, justice will always be present.
Love does not only revolve around trust and loyalty. Love is built up of many elements, and John Keats writes about the power and allure of love in his poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Written in the 17th century, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, also consists of somewhat supernatural and magical elements. The poem is split into two subsections and consists of two narrators. The first narrator, a lady addressing the knight, speaks of the knight’s ill condition, but does not realise the truth of what has befallen the knight. Keats is possibly suggesting that although it is better to hear the story from two sides, you may not always get the full story. The same occurs in love, in which you may not know the whole truth behind many relationships. The lady states “The sedge has wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing.” and “The squirrel’s granary is full, and the harvest’s done”. These lines contain autumn imagery, the state of decay. This could suggest that love is not forever, and all relations have the possibility to decay. The theme of decay is also strong pathetic fallacy for the events which happen in the poem. The lady then speaks of “a lily on thy brow”, as flowers are normally symbols of love, but lilies are symbolic for death, Keats is possibly suggesting that love in full of opposites and contrasting ideas. The knight first speaks of “a faery’s child”. Fairies are said to have supernatural powers, and this suggests the unexpected, magical events which happen during the course of being in love. Later, he states “She look’d at me as she did love, and made sweet moan”. This is possibly some euphemistic language to cover up strong sexual imagery. The use of euphemisms and cover ups may suggest that love is powerful and is undoubtedly strong, and uncontained love may be dangerous. He then lists a series of holy foods: “roots of relish sweet, and honey wild and manna dew”. Keats is obviously trying to convey to the readers that love is so powerful a force, it may even be holy and is a gift from god, given that manna dew was also a gift from god. The knight then recounts that he had a dream, and it was “the lastest dream I ever dreamt”. The idea of last dream implies that he cannot sleep again, which was a known symptom of lovesickness in the 17th century. Keats is implying that love is so powerful, it can fill your mind and take over your life. The knight then tells us that in his dream, he sees “pale kings and princes too” “They cried La Belle Dame Sans Merci hath thee in thrall!”. From this, we can see that Keats is implying that relationship problems happen more frequently among the rich and powerful, as all these high position men are being seduced by the faery’s child. This could be Keat’s view that true love is not built up on a desire for riches and power, but a sense of mutual agreement. At the end of the poem, the knight awakens from his dream, and he is described as “sojourning” and “palely loitering”. This suggests that women have immense power over men in relationships, and spoils of love is frequently one sided. The last lines are as thus: “Though the sedge has wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing”. These repeated lines confirm that the world is indeed decaying for the knight, proving the importance of love and relationships. This is also a short cyclical structure, and this could suggest that love and heartbreak is all a cycle, and we should learn to accept the tough times in life.
When the word ‘love’ is mentioned, hearts, flowers and females come to the minds of males, but do all males see love the same way? Keats, Browning and Donne provide good examples of masculine views on love, and these views are seen in their poems, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘The Apparition’. In ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, Keats describes men as objects to be seduced, a woman’s plaything. In the poem, the faery enticed many powerful men and put them all under her control by means of them contracting lovesickness. Keats may be implying that infatuation is often confused for love, and the results of being misguided can include becoming someone’s pawn, as some women take advantage of this situation and will attempt to manipulate and control men. Chivalrous love is also a key focus in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, and Keats believes that being chivalrous is important in any relationship, but men must be aware that they are not being played with. In the poem ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, Browning presents us with a rather contrasting view. In ‘Porphyria's Lover’, the roles are switched around, instead of the female establishing control over the male, the lover in the poem suddenly decides that he owns Porphyria, and briefly strangles her. The use of the statement: “she was mine, mine fair” shows the male’s perception of dominance over his Porphyria. The use of repetition also strengthens this idea. In the end of the poem, the narrator states that “God has not said a word”, which implies that the lover believes he has committed no offense, and his actions were justified. Browning’s other poem, ‘My Last Duchess’, seems to revolve around the same concept, that men are free to do what they wish to women. It is a fact that the duchess is “easily pleased”, but it has not been proven that she has done anything wrong. The duke murders her on the basis of suspicion, and again, he feels it is his right to do so, as he proclaims that he shall murder his next wife if she were to be unfaithful too. It seems that Browning’s view on love is very one sided (at least as it is shown in his poetry), and he seems to believe in male superiority. From ‘The Apparition’, we can see that Donne’s views are slightly more similar to the modern day views on love. Donne first makes it clear that in the poem, he is now a ghost, and the ex-lover is the killer: “O murdresse, I am dead”. This suggests that the pain he feels from the break-up is strong enough to metaphorically kill him, and many modern day people going through tough relationships can relate to this. He later speaks of how his ex-lover has made the bad choice leaving him and how she will be treated unfairly: “in worse arms shall see”. Many modern day people also feel this way, the belief that they are better than the third party. In the end, Donne wishes the worst to befall his ex-lover, and this view is commonly shared among 21st century youths. Donne creates a precise but generalized male’s view on lovers and loyalty, and his views are most suited to what is accepted and expected out of males in our society today.
It is important, when trying to present a message, that you acquire the correct context. ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is set in the medieval period, and medieval settings are often hints for fantasy. Given that the poem is replicating a non-existent setting, and that the poem itself was written in the ‘metaphysical poetry’ era, it is easy to assume that this context is one of illusion. Keats could possibly be suggesting that love is a powerful illusion, women are controlling and tyrannical, and true love is the only way out of this trap. Given this context, we can also assume that lovesickness is caused by men being separated from their women, and this suggests that Keats believe men should break free of this illusion and let go of their past. This context is well suited for bringing out the message of this poem, which is the strength of false and true love, as the fantasy setting and the supernatural events constantly remind you of power and magical acts. As ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is set in the past, it is also possible that Keats is suggesting that chivalry is dead, and there is no time nor need for chivalry in the modern world.
Aside from context, form is usually a key point in poetry. The form of ‘Sonnet 116’ made it obvious that it was a manuscript on true love, as Shakespeare had arranged the lines in a listlike form. Short, snappy verses suggest that to love, you must follow procedures, and ‘Sonnet 116’ is the instruction manual. The regular rhyme scheme of ‘Sonnet 116’ also suggests that love is straightforward and does not suffer from change in any way. the couplets in the end may imply that true love is fair and couples are never meant to be broken. ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is presented neatly into four line stanzas and a constant rhyme scheme for every second and fourth line. The controlled divisions and rhyming may be to emphasize the fact that women control men, and how fluid things flow when someone is in control. There is a break in the rhyme scheme in the very first and last stanzas, and this may symbolize the possibility to break free of control, by avoiding temptation in the beginning, and by finding true love in the end. ‘The Apparition’ follows an unusual rhyme scheme, which goes ‘abbabcdcdceffeggg’. This is strange, for the poem seems mismatched and in disorder. It is possible that this was what Donne was implying, that disloyalty in love causes one to become confused, and throws a person’s life into disarray. The fact that the rhyme scheme steadies in the end may be a message, suggesting that people must learn to forget about the past, stabilize and look forward to the future. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ features no stanza division, but follows a controlled, yet irregular rhyme scheme. The lack of stanza division suggests that the action is fast paced and flowing, and there is no flaw in the lover’s plan. The controlled rhyme scheme emphasizes the lover’s control over Porphyria, but the irregularity suggests his mental instability.
Every individual has their own view and opinion on the topic of loyalty, love and relationships. Through these poems, I can conclude that love is usually presented as a powerful, yet natural force with the ability to influence and control humans, and plays a very important role in society throughout the ages.