How the poets you have studied in Best Words and your selection of pre 20th century poetry approach the theme of true love

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Last updated: July 14, 2019

‘Let me not,’ ‘My mistress’s eyes’ and ‘Shall I compare thee’ are sonnets by William Shakespeare.

‘Come live with me’ is by Christopher Marlowe and the reply to this is by Walter Raleigh. All were written at the turn of the 17th century. ‘Let me not,’ ‘Shall I compare thee’ and ‘Come live’ are all traditional poems of the time – a man praising a woman, especially her appearance – whereas the other two poems are parodies, making fun of the traditional poems and style of poetry.Shakespeare’s poems are all written in sonnet form – a 14-line poem with 3 quatrains with an ABAB rhyming schemes, and a final rhyming couplet, containing the rhythm of an iambic pentameter. The other two are written in the freer four-line stanza form with an iambic tetrameter. All are based on the subject of true love, one that was widely written about then and one that is still widely written about today.

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‘Let me not’ and ‘Shall I compare thee’ approach the subject in a serious way, the parodies in a light-hearted way and ‘Come live’ is somewhere in between.Let me not’ is a Shakespearean sonnet and approaches the theme of true love in a traditional way. Shakespeare portrays that ‘a marriage of true mindes’ cannot be altered and will not be stopped. True love doesn’t alter over ‘briefe houres and weekes’ but lasts forever. True love is given as that which will never end, it is ‘not Times foole’ and even when ‘bending sickles’ appear – a reference to the Grim Reaper who greets you in death and carries a sickle – true love is still there. Love ‘is an ever fixed marke’ and ‘beares it out even to the edge of doome’.Shakespeare uses hyperbole, ‘ever fixed,’ ‘every wandering barke’ and rhetorical devices, ‘O no,’ throughout to prove his point. Throughout the sonnet Shakespeare uses the language of argument to prove his point and approach true love, which does not ‘alter when the alteration finds.

‘ There is usage of imperatives: let; admit; or; although; which are used to stress the argument. The final rhyming couplet is very important and sums up the sonnet as a whole, confirming what has been said. In the final rhyming couplet Shakespeare writes that if what he has written is not true he ‘never writ, nor no man ever loved.This is obviously not true, perhaps it is a smug comment – it cannot be said that Shakespeare ‘never writ’ – and therefore Shakespeare has proved that his sonnet tells the truth. Here Shakespeare intimates that true love lasts forever and cannot be altered.

Another example of a more traditional approach to the theme of true love is ‘Come live with’ by Christopher Marlowe. This is similar in style to ‘Let me not’ and approaches the theme of true love in a similar way. It is written in the pastoral tradition and attempts to flatter the recipient, whom we presume is female.The poet is a shepherd who is willing to give many things like ‘beds of roses’ ‘a gown of finest wool’ to persuade a particular lady to ‘live with me and be my love. ‘ Many of the words and phrases are associated with nature; ‘a thousand fragrant posies’ and the poet will also show her the ‘valleys, groves hills and fields,’ all the natural beauties of the world. There all also man-made or artificial gifts offered; ‘fair lined slippers’ and ‘buckles of the purest gold,’ gold being then as it is now a very precious commodity, and so the gifts are nonsensical given that he is a shepherd.

Marlowe is very presumptuous and optimistic in tone, ‘we will sit upon the rocks’ and presumes that she will want what he is offering and will be his love, though he does say if ‘these delights thy mind may move’. Marlowe appears to be telling us that true love can be achieved through gifts to the one that you love. Walter Raleigh replies to this in a poem of his own called ‘The Reply’. He uses exactly the same rhythm, stanza form and repeats many of Marlowe’s words and phrases.

However Raleigh writes as if he is the recipient of the first poem and unlike Marlowe is a realist, not an optimist and realises that time will spoil the things that are being offered to her. Raleigh writes as though he were the girl and only if ‘love were young’ and lasted then she would consider ‘to live with thee and be thy love. ‘ Unfortunately for the shepherd she realises that ‘flowers do fade,’ and other gifts ‘soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten. ‘ Only if ‘youth could last and love still breed’ would she contemplate living with the poet of the original poem. This poem is a parody of ‘Come live’ and reverses the traditional style.

This poem implies that traditional poems are nonsensical in that they are always too optimistic and never realistic and are too reliant on themselves to be right, never believing that anyone could refuse their poem. This parody conveys the idea that true love cannot be bought with gifts that will not last forever, which is still a prevalent idea. Another parody is ‘My mistress’s eyes’ which is another sonnet by Shakespeare. It is mocking Shakespeare’s contemporaries and also the poet himself. It is a parody of the traditional poem where the poet flatters a girl.

In ‘My mistress’s eyes’ Shakespeare is not complimentary of his mistress.Her eyes are nothing like the sun Which is far more red than her lips red; ‘Music hath a far more pleasant sound’ than her voice, and there are no roses ‘in her cheeks. The typical, traditional poem over exaggerates the beauty of the woman, making her impossibly beautiful, Shakespeare himself does in both ‘Let me not’ and ‘Shall I compare thee’ where he says ‘thy eternall Sommer shall not fade.

‘ This poem conveys the idea that beauty is not needed for true love. Shakespeare thinks, by heaven I think my love as rare As any belied with false compare And it does not concern him that she is not beautiful, his love is the more exceptional. Shall I compare thee’ is similar to ‘Let me not’ in that it is a traditional Shakespearian sonnet.

It approaches the theme of true love through flattery, optimism and by complete faith in what he is saying.This sonnet begins with the question ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summers day? ‘ which is answered in the second line, saying that they are ‘more lovely and more temperate. ‘ Shakespeare then proceeds to explain why his lover is lovelier than a summer’s day, and this is because ‘Sommers lease hath all too short a date,’ so does not last for ever, whereas the person written about ‘shall not fade. Summer days are not perfect as they are ‘Sometimes too hot’ and the sun ‘often his gold complexion dim’d,’ it is sometimes too cold. Even death will not be able to brag, as they will live on ‘in eternall lines’, which refers to the words written down or wrinkles, and as ‘long as men can breath or eyes can see. ‘ The poem is still being read, hundreds of years after being written and so ‘long lives’ the poem and it still ‘gives life to thee.

‘ Again Shakespeare is sure of the immortality of this poem, and therefore the person who it was written about, he is defying time.The approach to true love in this poem is through a love that is better than something else is, in this case a summer’s day, and which is beyond comparison. Although each poem approaches the theme of true love in a different way, either through parodies or through more traditional styles, they are all similar. Except for ‘Come live’ and ‘My mistress’ eyes’ all the poems use the theme of time and suggesting that true love is eternal. Most use the theme of the beauty of nature, either to compare as in ‘Shall I compare thee’ or as a gift as in ‘Come live’.

Except for ‘My mistress’ eyes’ all are specifically written to someone. The two parodies mock the traditional approach, which is often highly praising of someone, ‘The reply’ which refuses the offer by saying I wont ‘live with thee and be thy love’ and ‘My mistress’ eyes’ by neglecting the appearance. As already mentioned the theme of love can be approached in a serious way or through a more light-hearted tone, both of which are still used to approach the theme of love today.

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