“Romantic” – this word holds many different connotations and brings to mind a collection of different images. It can be “fanciful, impractical, unrealistic”; it can be “ardent, passionate, fervent”; and it can be “imaginary, fictitious, or fabulous”. According to the dictionary, “romantic” is an adjective characterized by a preoccupation with love, or by the idealizing of love or one’s beloved. In the three poems I have chosen – “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” by William Shakespeare, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats and “Piano” by D.H. Lawrence, the poets use a variety of linguistic and literary devices, as well as explore different themes and imagery, to present love from a “romantic” perspective.
The “romance” portrayed in the three poems may be distinct to each other, but is without a doubt something that idealizes love, that elevates the subject of love onto a pedestal. The poems “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” by William Shakespeare, “First Love” by John Clare and “Remember” by Christina Rossetti also depict love in a romantic light. I will examine exactly how the poets do it – how the poets ingeniously present love from a romantic perspective in their poems.
Firstly, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” – also known as Sonnet 116 – is one of the most famous in William Shakespeare’s collection of sonnets. It demonstrates the glory and invincibility of love, and is a poem addressed to a mysterious “Fair Youth”. The sonnet proposes the idea that true love will always persevere, regardless of any obstacles or troubles that may come. Shakespeare employs various literary and linguistic devices to present love from a romantic perspective and portray it in a divine light.
Shakespeare uses metaphors and imagery to idealize love, presenting the subject romantically. The lines “It is an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken” and “the star to every wandering bark” portray love as a permanent guide, something unwavering and definite that will always be there. The idea that love is a guiding star has been used in countless poems by many different poets, but Shakespeare puts a unique emphasis on this imagery. The main metaphor of the sonnet is that love is like the North Star, which never changes position in the night sky – it has been a stable point used for navigation for centuries, and by using such a comparison, Shakespeare portrays love as the star that shepherds people through life.
The “tempests” that trouble the seas are a metaphor for the obstacles that relationships may have to face, and the “wandering bark” personifies the lost ship, as if it has a purpose and is looking for something. “Wandering bark” is also a metaphor for a lover being led, by love, out of the boisterous sea of life. Through the use of nautical imagery, Shakespeare presents love from a romantic perspective by creating a vivid scene of a ship lost in the turbulence of a stormy sea, with a serene, unmoving star as a guide above.
The poet also explores the themes of time, age and death to glorify love, hence presenting it romantically. Elizabethan readers of Shakespeare’s sonnets are familiar with the Grim Reaper, the icon of European culture in the medieval period when many died every day due to the Black Plague. The Grim Reaper is a horrifying character who bears a scythe, skeletal and macabre. However, in Sonnet 116, Shakespeare expresses that the Grim Reaper can actually be defeated by love – again depicting the intrepidity of it. “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come:” personifies love and time, claiming that Love will not succumb to Time. “Sickle’s compass come” uses the plosive sound of “k” to mimic the harsh sounds of a death rattle – it is onomatopoeic.
In the lines “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”, the “his” refers to Time, and Shakespeare is emphasizing the prowess of love by showing that Time has no effect or control over it. This lifts “love” onto a pedestal and portrays it in a romantic light. Similarly, Shakespeare also employs the themes of time and eternity to glorify love in another one of his most famous poems – Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”. In this sonnet, the speaker compares a “beloved” to a summer’s day, and says that the beloved’s eternal summer will never fade, that the beloved would be kept alive forever by the poem. Once again, Shakespeare personifies death, this time as the one who oversees a “shade” – Shakespeare writes that the beloved will conquer all and will not be swept into this sickly light of Death.
Thirdly, Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter and rhythm also elevates the subject of love and presents it from a romantic perspective. The sonnet manages to have a consistent rhythm, yet seem conversational; it is able to be formal and planned, but casual and spontaneous at the same time. This is achieved through Shakespeare’s ingenious use of rhythm and pacing. The iambic pentameter becomes very obvious after the third line, “Which alters when it alteration finds”, thus creating a consistent pacing.
However, the poet uses dramatic exclamations to break up the rhythm, making the speaker seem more human than a machine – an example would be, “O no! It is an ever fixed mark”. The metaphors and imagery used all weave a sophisticated sonnet, but the actual language is very simple, making the sonnet easy to read and the claims well-illustrated. The closing two lines, “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”, is a rhyming couplet that is full of impact. The couplet again immortalizes love and praises it with glory, an epitome of presenting love from a romantic perspective.
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 is one of the most famous poems that immortalizes love. I think it definitely successfully presents love from a romantic perspective, using a variety of devices. Even after dissecting the poem and analyzing each of the aspects respectively, I am still overwhelmed by the general sense of romance that comes through, instead of being focused on the mechanics and functions of words and phrases. I feel that the “romantic” sense in Sonnet 116 is that of an idealization of love, and Shakespeare crafts it beautifully.
The second poem I will investigate is “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, a ballad written by John Keats in 1819. It is a poem that also presents love from a romantic perspective, though in a different way. In this poem, the “romance” that is portrayed is passionate and fictitious – something akin to a magical myth. The title of the ballad translates to “The Beautiful Lady Without Pity”. John Keats had taken inspiration and the title from the early fifteenth century French poem by Alain Chartier, though the narratives of the two poems are different. John Keats chose this phrase to use as the title of his ballad to highlight the storyline of a seductive woman who tempts a man of honour from the real world and abandons him with unfulfilled dreams, drained of life. The theme of dangerous and unrequited love is explored in the poem. John Keats is well known for being one of the most prominent poets of the Romantic era, and “La Belle Same Sans Merci” is one of his most famous poems.
John Keats plays with floral imagery to present love from a romantic perspective. Flowers are beautiful and delicate things that are often given as gifts and expressions of love and romance – and by using flowers as symbols for different meanings in the poem, Keats portrays love in a romantic light. In line 9, the speaker says to the knight, “I see a lily on thy brow” – lilies are pale white and are often associated with death in the Western culture, and this is a metaphor expressing that the knight looks sickly and deathly pale. Another obvious use of floral imagery to romanticize love is seen in lines 11-12, “And on thy cheeks a fading rose / Fast withereth too.”
Roses are often associated with love in the Western culture, and the knight’s rose “fading and withering” holds connotations of the ending of a romantic relationship. However, the rose, like the lily, is also describing the knight’s complexion – the colour is fading from his cheeks. In these two lines, Keats cleverly employs the rose as a symbol for both the knight’s pale face and waning love. Lastly, in lines 17-18, the knight makes a garland and bracelets out of flowers for the faery’s child. Flowers hold connotations of beauty, love and life, and the knight adorns the woman with them – Keats uses the flowers as a symbol to show the intensity of the knight’s love for her.
Another image that is repeatedly explored in the poem is “paleness”, and this paints love in a romantic sense as it highlights the melancholic and dramatically destructive aspects of love. In the beginning of the poem, in line 2, the paleness is already established by the speaker – “Alone and palely loitering”. This line has the alliteration of the consonance “l”, and this creates a musical sound that emphasizes the phrase, especially drawing the readers’ attention to the rarity of using “pale” as an adverb – “palely”. An internal rhyme is also created, as “palely” rhymes with “ail thee” from line 1 – again, this highlights the phrase and enhances the “paleness” of the knight, underlining the romantic melancholy of the knight.
In the lines 37-38, the word “pale” is used three times in just two lines. When the knight is describing his dream, he speaks of “pale kings” and “pale warriors”, who were all “death pale” – the images painted in the readers’ minds are drained of colour and life, and the “paleness” is now explicitly associated with death. Lastly, in the lines 37-40, “pale” is repeated to accentuate the similarities between the word and the words “all”, “belle”, and “thrall”. The consonance creates a connection between all the words when they are read aloud, and makes the readers think whether the “belle dame” could’ve been the cause of the “paleness” of “all” the knights, warriors and princes she had in “thrall”. This clever manipulation of “paleness” reinforces the sense of a “story” in the ballad and enriches the romance within, presenting love from a romantic perspective.
In addition, John Keats utilizes the “lyrical” sense of the ballad format to elevate the romance in the poem. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” has the typical features of a ballad, and when read aloud, it is similar to a folk song. The words have a continuous, uniform rhythm that sets an underlying beat, and the literary devices employed – such as alliteration and rhymes – create a harmonious sound. The ballad also has a “circular structure” – it begins and ends similarly, with “The sedge has wither’d from the lake, / And no birds sing.” as the ending of the first stanza, and “Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake, / And no bird sing.” for the last stanza. This seems to make “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” appear more like a song than just a plain poem. Because of this musical sense that is added to the poem, John Keats puts the subject of his poem – love – onto a pedestal and portrays it romantically, akin to a love song.
Lastly, the imagery of dew and water is used to intensify the danger of women in the poem, and this in turn portrays love in a fatal sense, rivetingly romantic. Women were often associated with water in medieval romances, and John Keats used this tradition in his medieval folk ballad. This symbolic tradition is a metaphor for men who become weakened after contact with dangerous women. A reference to water is already used in the beginning of the poem – in line 3, the speaker identifies death and “wither’d” with water – “The sedge has wither’d from the lake”. A lake does not flow like a river or a spring; it is stagnant and void of life. This already creates an ominous mood that hangs over the rest of the poem, and emphasizes the catastrophe that love has done to the knight. In line 10, the unnamed speaker says that the knight’s face has “anguish moist and fever dew” – the knight is sweating from a fever.
This again demonstrates that the knight is physically ill from love, and also makes the reader wonder where he caught the fever. The readers seem to find the answer later on, when “dew” is repeated – the faery’s child fed the knight “manna dew” in line 26. “Manna” is heavenly food – but it was not originally food that is eaten as “dew”. John Keats wrote that the manna was in liquid state to add to the continuous metaphors used throughout the whole ballad. John Keats seems to hint that women are gentle and soft like water, but when men came into contact with them, they could suddenly become rash and vicious. Women are dangerous and unpredictable like water. This metaphor makes love seem thrillingly romantic; exhilarating – it delineates love in a romantic light.
Another poem that echoes this idea of men becoming weakened by women and love is “First Love” by John Clare. This poem is about the poet’s first and seemingly unrequited love. John Clare uses the imagery of “deathly paleness” to show the destruction of love, too – he writes, “My face turned pale as deathly pale”. Clare also explores the aspect of becoming physically ill from dangerous love, just like Keats’s portrayal of love in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. Clare writes, “And blood burnt round my heart”, claiming that he was in physical pain – similarly, John Keats writes that the knight has an actual fever from his deleterious love.
When I was comparing the poems, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “First Love”, I was surprised and very intrigued by the similarities between them. Both poems seem to draw out the most fatal features of love, describing it as something that would drain men of life. I am engaged by the way they depict the thrilling qualities of love with corresponding images, and it is fascinating to see that the poets have chosen to portray love in a romantically dangerous light after analyzing the idealized “true love” in Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The third poem I am going to analyze is “Piano” by D.H Lawrence. The love portrayed here is not that of a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, but that of a relationship between Lawrence and his mother. The poet begins the poem with an enchanting evening, where music brings back memories of his beloved mother – he then borrows the idyllic atmosphere of the evening to describe his reminiscence, hence presenting love from a romantic perspective. Even though the poem does not depict a relationship of “romance”, it does render love in a nostalgic and sentimental sense.
“Piano” is a poem where the single speaker is listening to a woman sing to him, and the music brings him back to dwell in the memories of his childhood. The speaker remembers fondly of the times when his mother sang to him whilst playing the piano. In the end of the poem, the memory of the past overwhelms the present. As a man, the speaker should be more enraptured by the passionate singing of the woman, but his memory conquers his manhood as he loses control of his emotions. The speaker remembers his mother’s singing with tears on his face – he becomes a child again.
The first line of the poem already creates an overall romantic atmosphere. “Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me”. The word “softly” casts a gentle and tender tone to the following lines. The diction of the word “dusk” holds connotations of a peaceful warmth, an enigmatic and mysterious twilight, painting an image of a soothing glow in the minds of the readers. This first line sets the mood of the poem and creates a romantic background for the remaining lines of the poem to be based upon. The use of romantic atmosphere is also demonstrated in the description of the climax of the singer rising to a crescendo – “So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour / With the great black piano appassionato.
The glamour”. The language is powerful and passionate. The memories of the speaker’s childhood also create a warm and secure ambience that forms a lingering feeling of romance. In the final line, “Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.”, the diction of “flood” and “weep” craft a romantically melancholic atmosphere. Likewise, in the poem “Remember” by Christina Rossetti, an atmosphere of romantic melancholy is also explored to present love from a romantic perspective. The poem depicts a somber aspect of love by featuring the theme of death, and glorifies love by making it seem beyond death’s darkness.
D.H. Lawrence also uses sibilance and assonance to portray love in a romantic perspective. The repetition of the “s” sounds in the opening line intensifies the feelings of romance as well as intimacy. Furthermore, assonance is used in the first two lines of the last stanza – “So now…clamour…glamour…” – the long “o” sounds depict the musical climax of the singer’s performance in a romantic sense. Sibilance is again used in the line “smiles as she sings”, and the repeated “i” sounds in the line create the facial effects of a smile when read aloud. This intensifies the romantic feeling of the poem as it emphasizes the speaker’s mother smiling and singing, and brings to mind images of affection and tenderness.
Tone and language are also employed to present love in a romantic perspective. The language used can be called conversational, and is definitely very intimate. It is that of a narrative, as if the speaker is telling a very personal story. By starting the poem with “Softly”, the poet creates a romantic longing for the past, as the word has a semantic field of tender fondness. The warmth in the tone when the speaker is describing the childhood scenes also creates romantically nostalgic images in the minds of readers. In the fourth line of the first stanza, “And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings”, the repetition of the plosive “p” highlights the rhythm of the piano, as well as the intimacy between the son and the mother.
Additionally, other techniques that are used to present love from a romantic perspective include repetition and metaphors. “Piano” is repeated in each stanza, making the image consistent through the whole poem – the piano then becomes a romantic symbol for the speaker’s love for his mother. The word “tinkling” in the second stanza can be seen as a repetition of the “tingling” in the first stanza, and this use of onomatopoeia creates a pleasant sound when read aloud, adding to the sentimental mood of the poem. “Weeps” is used in both the second stanza and the last stanza, and the repetition accentuates the speaker’s need and longing for his mother that seems romantically sad. In the poem, the poet also uses “vista” as a metaphor for “memory” – a vista is a beautiful view seen through a long and narrow opening, and this creates a bewitching image in the readers’ minds of scenes from a childhood spread out across a landscape.
Similarly, the poet also writes, “the flood of remembrance” – in the diction of “flood”, the writer creates an image of an unstoppable overwhelming of emotions, and it is this uncontainable quality that adds to the romantic nostalgia. Metonymy is also used – “feet” represent the speaker’s mother. The scenes created in the readers’ minds seem to feature a faceless mother, focusing on the “child sitting under the piano…pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings”.
The mother’s face is not described – the only feature of the mother that the readers envision is her feet and her smile. This adds a romantic quality to the poem as it puts the world in a small child’s perspective, and gives a somewhat enigmatic aura to the mother and also expresses the fractured, dreamlike qualities of a memory. The “small, poised feet” of the mother portray her in a gentle and delicate light, and intensifies the overall romantic perspective of motherly love in the poem.
In conclusion, the three poems – “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “Piano” – all display a variety of different techniques to present love from a romantic perspective. All three poets use literary and linguistic devices such as metaphors, sibilance, assonance and more. The three poems accent love with romance, whether it is a conventional man-woman relationship or mother-son relationship. The term “romantic” is explored by each of the poets: William Shakespeare immortalizes true love and makes it seem perfect and omnipotent; John Keats adds a vital, riveting quality to love and D.H. Lawrence examines the subject through a lens of nostalgia. After analyzing these three poems, I realized that the human experience of love has moved poets, throughout the centuries, to express the nature of love romantically.
Love is depicted as fanciful, dreamy, impractical; invincible, passionate, immortal. Poets have a desire to eternalize the subject of their poems – whether it is their beloved, or love itself. It is as William Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” – “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” I agree with Shakespeare – as long as there are people alive to read poems, the nature of love that William Shakespeare, John Keats and D.H. Lawrence tried to present from a romantic perspective will live on forever.