The Elizabethan era was a time one links with the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It was a time known as the ‘Golden Age’, and allowed for a great expanse in English literature, poetry and music. It was the epitome of the English renaissance, and with it came many great artists, including William Shakespeare who changed Elizabethan theatre more than anyone of that era.
Like Shakespeare, many English writers were influenced by the Italian sonnet, and these became heavily incorporated into the way poetry was written. Also with the renaissance of the English era, there came a greater interest in the Christian belief, and understanding the meaning behind it. This also influenced many writers, most notable being John Milton and Edmund Spenser.
William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” demonstrates that he is one of the few love poets of his era whose style is so different to that of others. In most Renaissance love poems a woman is praised for her beauty, and adored for her godlike and perfect features. This involved comparing a woman’s beauty to that of nature. One such poem which emphasizes this technique is “Epithalamion” by Edmund Spenser, who uses the conventional methods of poetry during that era.
His methods include comparing his love to nature and describing her with heavenly characteristics. However in contrast, Shakespeare’s description of his ‘mistress’ seems unadorned and simple, although many found it shocking, the simplicity in her description, conveys his love for her as it shows that she is “rare” because she seems real, unlike the transcendent portrayal of Spenser’s beloved.
At the very beginning of Shakespeare’s sonnet, one immediately realizes that it is very different to the love poems of that era. This is because there is an almost immediate distinction between the ways in which he describes her actual beauty-simplistic-, to that of Spenser. For example, whereas Spenser contrasts her ‘goodly eyest’ to that of ‘Saphyres shining bright’ Shakespeare simply implies that he will not draw exaggerated parallels to her eyes, but will adore them just as they are; simple;- ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’.
Furthermore, Shakespeare continues with his simple description of his ‘mistress’ when he describes her lips as faded, because ‘Coral is far more red than her lips’ red’. Whereas, Spenser’s elaborate description project an idealistic image of a woman whose appearance seduces and entices the likes of men – this can be seen as very sexist as it objectifies and demeans her. Another common technique of that era was to describe woman as food- he praised her ‘lips lyke cherryes charming men to bite’ this again could be seen as objectifying as the poet is a likening her to food, and not to a human being.
Comparisons like the prior continue throughout the poems, not only is there contrast within Shakespeare’s poem ; ‘I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks ‘ or even ‘if snow be white, why then her breast are dun.’ These not only portray contrast within the poem, but also contrast with the contemporaries, like Spenser. For example, Spenser’s comparison of his love’s cheeks is that ‘lyke apples which the sun hath rudded’ , this comparison – and the use of vibrant red to portray a woman’s cheeks- was a trademark of love poems during this era, showing, and portraying another distinction between Shakespeare’s poem – direct in description – and Spenser’s poem – exaggerated in style.
Another comparison can also be drawn with the contrasting quotes of each poet’s description of their loves breasts. Spenser’s description, follows the norm in describing them as white, like ‘to a bowle of creame uncrudded’ whereas Shakespeare’s, strays again strays away from the norm, when describing his ‘mistress’ as having dun coloured breasts, again the poet uses food to describe his mistress, if one reads it in a feminist light, it seems as she is an object to him, something he lusts for, and not something he loves and cherishes.
The way in which Spenser describes his mistress, can be seen as false, this is because his description of her is so blissful that it has to be fake, just like how fairytales are;- although beautiful, are all made up and are essentially lies. However, Shakespeare is blunt and to the point when describing his ‘mistress’ makes her seem not only plain and simple, but also real. This is because through his sonnet, one realizes that although it lack of adorning, her beauty is not exaggerated, and thus one comes to a conclusion that there is beauty in simplicity.
Furthermore, Shakespeare’s controversial opposing technique, seem to mock that of his contemporaries, and their exaggerated comparisons, which can at time seem insincere because a real girl is better than the false elevated comparisons of beauty portrayed by Spenser . Additionally, Shakespeare’s sonnet can seem controversial in the sense of society, as its unflattering view is rebelling, and even opposing the idealized view of woman.
Both poets use blazon, however their approach differs, Spenser, as discussed previously, goes with tradition, by using the normal, conventional approach towards the theme- starts to embellish the woman with praise, starting with her eyes, and moving down . However, Shakespeare approach is unconventional as it mocks the tradition set during that era, by the use of simple contrasts. Shakespeare’s mocking of tradition, changes the effect of the blazon, and makes it argumentative, as to question the foundations of tradition set up by the petrarchan convention.
One can blatantly see that a comparison between the two poems shows definite contrasting ideas, like their approach to their adoration of women, because although Shakespeare seems to undermine his ‘mistress’ outer, materialistic beauty, one can clearly see that his love for her is not skin deep because he realizes that although, the description of her may be uncomplicated, he realizes that his ‘love’ is ‘as rare as any she belied with false compare.’ On the other hand, Spenser seems to only notice her beauty, and not the beauty she conveys within.
Also, it seems that Shakespeare’s approach is more honest, which could be seen as more appealing to the younger audience of today’s generation. This is because his language, although Elizabethan, appears fairly uncomplicated, and his comparison seem stark – “black wires” – additionally, his poem to others is more candid, and thus, more generally accepted in today’s society.
Another of Shakespeare’s sonnets, ‘Sonnet 116’ depicts an extended personification of love. It contrast to sonnet 130, as instead of mocking the techniques of his era, he follows the norm with his basic sonnet form which has three quatrains and a rhyming couplet, also the poem itself seems more graceful, not only in the way the poem is laid out, but also the language used seems the promote love, however in an elevated and respectful style. He uses imagery to emphasise nothing can change their love, this is projected in lines three and four, when ‘alteration’ is ‘altered’ which adds to circumstance and ‘remover’ is ‘removed’ takes it away, thus essentially canceling each other out; emphasisng that nothing can corrupt and alter their love for one another.
In austere contrast “To His Coy Mistress”, by Andrew Marvell, the narrator portrays his love to his mistress, yet his mannerism seems crude and slightly ignominious. This is evident in his use of elevated imagery, for example, in his use of hyperbole simple yet effective imagery, with a hint of shock tactics when he states that if she doesn’t have sex with him before she dies, “worms shall try that long preserv’d virginity.”
Marvell also seems to uses imagery that attempts to convey the potential they would share if she were to fall for him as his argument against her coyness; one example is the line that states “My Vegetable love should grow vaster than empires and more slow.” This could be seen as phallic and undeveloped, but it could also suggest that he will nurture his love for her; just like that of a farmer to his vegetables, which takes time. One could also examine that within these lines, is the use of enjambment, which is mimetic of the idea that there is plenty of time for him to love her.
In “Sonnet 116” it seems unclear what the gender of the speaker is. This allows for universality within the poem where due respect is given; an element totally lacking in “To His Coy Mistress”.
The very first line shows that the speaker is recognizing both his and his lovers’ intellectual and spiritual union with the bond they share between them. He goes on to say that this union should not be interfered with as what they have is special, like marriage. This is emphasized by the use of a caesura, after the word “impediments”- which also suggests mimeses. The first line of the second quatrain strengthens the first the point originally portray by the bond that is shared between the two, this is accomplished by the use of similes, ‘It is the star too every wandering bark,’ suggesting that their love gives confined humans an anchoring point and sense of direction that offers purpose.
In comparison, “To His Coy Mistress” seems less elegant and even blunt, which is further highlighted by the use of couplets. Additionally, its iambic tetrameter makes it seem shorter and more humorous, as if the speaker is not taking their love seriously. The first two lines are in subjunctive mood, which I rare and shows that the man pretends to play along with her plans to wait and postpone their physical relationship. It then continues to show alliteration; the use of ‘w’ in “which way to walk” and also portrays mimetic enjambment, which underlines the fact that they have a lot of time.
Marvell lived soon after the time of the reformation, thus many were knowledgeable about religion, which is shown in is poem, as he states that his love for her has been there since the beginning of time; his reference to the ark, concerning Noah and the flood, and his love will continue till the end of time; with the “conversion of the Jews” which refers to Revelations, the last book of the bible.
Although it seems as if he is professing his love to her all the time, his crudeness almost eradicates any sense of emotion as it makes it seem that the only reason for his flattery is to get her into bed. Also at times his patronization her seem stupid, for example, when he uses the out dated convention of the blazon, as it pokes fun at her fine sensibilities and her coyness.
Both poems use hyperbole; Shakespeare uses it to exaggerate the point that their love is so strong that it cannot be corrupted. Whereas Marvell uses hyperbole to show how impossible it is for him to play along with her, this adds a sense of persuasion by allowing him to use hyperbole to make an opposite point.
Shakespeare states that “loves worth unknown” and “bears it out to the edge of doom,” which suggests that he is linking his love to something which is bigger than we can comprehend; suggesting that it is eternal and t transcends time, because “God is love,” as Renaissance Christians had read their version of the Bible.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 seems more sincere and ultimately the most persuasive in comparison to Marvell’s. This is because he recognizes and respects the beloved intellectually without reference to gender, whereas Marvell only seems to recognize his “Mistress” because he wants to have sex with her.
When one takes in to consideration all the poems and their approach to the theme of love, one can see clear distinctions. Sonnet 116 and sonnet 130-although written by the same author- vary, and are interpreted differently. It appears that ‘Sonnet 130’ focuses the most on love, and the how bonds that are created between two people, overcome any obstacle that is thrown at them. Whereas in Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’, one can see an indication that he loves his woman, however the focus-like Edmund Spenser- is on the beauty of their beloved. Marvell on the other hand, seems to play around with the theme of love, his ways of persuasion seem atypical, and this could allow for the interpretation that he does not love his mistress, but that his love for her is in actuality is facade or pretence for sexual intercourse.