Table of Contents
2. What is love?
3. Love and the Elizabethan sonnet
4. Discussion of Sonnet 147: My love is as a fever
Love has always been a recurring popular theme in literature because it raises a lot of intriguing questions. In this short essay, I want to explore the relationship between love and its presentation within one specific literary genre – the Elizabethan sonnet. By way of introduction, I will outline the nature of love and some sonnetary characteristics. I will then bring both concepts together to identify common features. Finally, the theme of love in one selected sonnet will be explored.
2. What is love?
At first glance, it seems to be a hopeless undertaking to exactly define the nature of love in one or two sentences. Too vast are the dimensions and associations we link to this rather abstract concept. We speak, for example, of motherly love, of brotherly love, of self-love, of platonic and cupboard love. Are these one and the same ‘loves’? Definitely not, because the ‘object of desire’ and the types and intensity of affection vary. So one conclusion to be drawn at the very beginning is that the idea of love is used in different senses by different people.
Exploring all possible semantic subtleties will not and cannot be our concern here. We would rather look at the notion of love as we usually encounter it in its most everyday meaning: love, or deep personal affection, as it exists between man and woman. To this end, a more accurate definition of the same shall be offered to serve as a starting point for our discussion: According to the OED (1a), love is
[t]hat disposition or state of feeling with regard to a person which (arising from recognition of attractive qualities, from instincts of natural relationship, or from sympathy) manifests itself in solicitude for the welfare of the object, and usually also in delight in his or her presence and desire for his or her approval; warm affection, attachment.
This brief elaboration on love attempts to answer three central questions: How is love characterised? Where does it originate from? What does it result in? In addition, it contains a number of interesting binaries: love is either seen as being permanent and constant (‘disposition’), or impermanent, and thus transient (‘state of feeling’). Also, we learn that the source of affection can be both external (‘attractive features’) and internal (‘sympathy’). The state of being in love triggers off a variety of human actions, either in caring for their beloved (‘welfare’), taking pleasure in their company (‘presence’), or in seeking their consent (‘approval’), and therewith harmony.
As people tend to perceive love as something that brings them delight and happiness, its concept is consequently presented in an overall positive sense. What is being ignored in this definition is the painful side of love, which will be discussed after examining the relation between love and the Elizabethan sonnet.
3. Love and the Elizabethan sonnet
‘Renaissance writing explored the geography of the human soul’ (Carter 2001: 54) in all its facets and with all its flaws. Also, the interest in love as an elemental human emotion was rekindled. In Elizabethan England, love and romance became therefore an overriding theme in literature.
The Elizabethan sonnet in particular can be seen as ‘a class of poetry expressing the lyrical outlook of an age’ (Lever 1968: v). Here we arrive at a pivotal point: it lies in the lyrical nature of the sonnet to be about love because the property of being lyrical links the form to the theme and vice versa. ‘Lyrical’ itself means ‘beautifully expressed in words, poetry, or music’ (LDOCE 2003: 970). Indeed, it is the sonnet, which, in its sounds and rhythms, is similar to love.
Sonnets are songlike poems because they are inherently musical and melodious in terms of their semantic etymology: sonnet or sonnetto respectively is nothing but the diminutive of the Italian word for sound: suono (cf. OED). The prevalence of open syllables in Italian may be the reason why we inevitably think of Italian as a language of music – and love.
The reason why the sonnet became the most important literary means to express strong idealized feelings such as love is also to do with the changing awareness of time during the Renaissance. As time was no longer considered to be eternal, people developed a ‘sense of temporal urgency and … the need to utilize one’s time as vigorously as possible’ (Oninoues 1972: 3). Thus, time became a precious good. Since a sonnet could be read in less than one minute, this literary genre stood for perfection of brevity.
We can conclude that the lyrical, musical, and temporal character of the Elizabethan sonnet leads us to assume that the sonnet itself is a representation of love. Taken out of their context, each of the 154 Shakespearean sonnets, for example, can be seen and understood as a ‘love message’ directed to any addressee since ‘it is impossible to segregate the varieties of possible meanings into meanings to particular characters’ (Burrow 2002: 119).
In the next chapter, we want to explore the theme of love in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets – with special emphasis on its painful sides.
4. Discussion of Sonnet 147: My love is as a fever …
As indicated in the beginning, love is not a purely pleasant experience because ‘it is … antonymically related to concepts such as jealousy and hate’ (Steen 2003: 68). In Sonnet 147 (see Appendix), another negative version of love is presented: love as a mental illness that requires medical treatment.
The first quatrain compares the poet’s unreciprocated love to an enduring ‘fever’ which is characterized by constant desire (‘longing still’) that is difficult to satisfy. In the second quatrain, the poet is disobedient towards his reason (‘the physician’) and says that even if he would follow the doctor’s advice, his disease could not be soothed away. He declares that ‘Desire is death’ which reason will not accept. In the third quatrain he reconciles himself to the fact that, without reason, madness reigns. This affects his ability to think and speak. The couplet concludes with the poet’s renunciation of his beloved as ‘black as hell, as dark as night’ and the apparent acceptance of his fate.
This sonnet looks at love and sexuality as an obsession which inevitably results in the poet’s mental torment. Love virtually devours him: ‘Desire is seen as a wasting fever, consuming both body and mind’ (Lever 1968: 180). As a consequence, the ill-fated lover turns into a slave, manacled by the tortures of his sufferings and unable to free himself from the shackles of his distress.
The poem is also a prime example for the illustration of traditional binaries such as love and passion versus control and reason. It affirms that the poet’s illness of being in love leads to wild and uncontrolled behaviour (‘madness’) as long as his ‘love-sickness’ is not healed or at least alleviated. Here, reason – the driving force in the Renaissance – comes into play: ‘While the romance lover, sick for his lady, considered her the only doctor who could cure him, for Shakespeare’s poet Reason is the true physician’ (ibid. 180).
The discrepancy between love (‘fever’) and reason (‘physician’) is underpinned by the use of language. The poem embodies a series of interesting metaphors that draw upon the imagery of illness (fever, disease, physician, prescription, cure, care, madness, madmen; ill, sickly, frantic-mad; to nurse, to feed). The poet’s choice of words widens the gulf between emotion and rationality and may support the argument that both of them are not consistent with each other: true love cannot be rational. In the sonnet, love has seized control over the poet, his fever proves to be stronger than reason. That leads us to another possible reading of the sonnet: love as a power.
In early modern writing, power was a further major theme in which, paradoxically, power was often put in the hands of the less powerful: ‘The power of the beloved is a microcosm of all power to command. The suffering of a lover is a symbol of all suffering’ (Carter 2001: 90). In the poem, love reveals itself as a destructive force that holds sway over the poet’s common sense. Even the power of medicine is incapable of resisting the power of love. Love has become a threat to the poet’s mind: it is affected by fever. His feverish mind may have led to a distortion of reality, his idea of love being a mirage: ‘For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright / Who art as black as hell, as dark as night’.
As sonnet 147 portrays only one possible side of love, let us finish this section with a general statement about the nature of love in Shakespeare’s poems. Burrow (2002: 5) declares that – rightly in my view – ‘the poems … repeatedly mediate on the perverse effects and consequences of sexual desire, on sacrifice and self-sacrifice, on the ways in which a relationship of sexual passion might objectify or enslave both the desirer and the desired, and they repeatedly complicate simple binary distinctions between male and female’.
Sonnets as a literary genre entirely satisfied the readers’ needs of a changing age: they were short and tended to be about love. In an utmost direct and clear fashion, Shakespeare perfectly articulates the various words and gestures we translate as love, and most of his poems are indeed nothing but variations on the theme of the same.
In this essay I attempted to demonstrate how love as a subject-matter and the sonnet as a poetic form are connected to each other, and how love finds its representation within this literary genre. We can conclude that it is first and foremost the sonnet’s structure which results in a richness of sometimes unexpected images: in the poem discussed we encountered love as an illness and as a power. Whatever the portrayal of love may be, the sonnet pursues the celebration of love in all its forms and dimensions, and thus elevating it to the most sublime of all human feelings.