Pre 1900’s Poetry
Many poems, written before the 1900’s, express the emotion of love. Each poem explores the meaning in a different way and in different forms. In this essay I will be investigating three different poems/sonnets; La Belle Dame Sans Merci written by John Keats, Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning and last but not least Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare. All of these have very different aspects and views, this is what makes them so interesting to compare because of the wide contrast involving the three poems. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a ballad written by an English poet, John Keats.
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John Keats lived between the years 1795 – 1821, his life cut short by tuberculosis. By this time, he had been writing serious poetry for barely six years but, even so, he was a very accomplished English poet. This ballad was written in 1819, this was only three years before his death. This ballad was one of the five poems to be written by Keats in 1819. It is a dialogue between two speakers: an unnamed speaker who is talking to the knight and the knight himself. The word ballad is originally French and its meaning is a “dancing song”.
They are narrative poems, made up of quatrains (four line verses), they follow the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b, and often use very simple stanzas. Many ballads are about tragic things, therefore La Belle Dame Sans Merci is about tragic love. This ballad is considered an English classic and follows the strict ballad structure. This title is French and means ‘The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy/Pity’. This title is rather strange, as we, the reader, wonder why John Keats could not just have called this poem ‘The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy/Pity’. It is believed that he called it this because of an earlier piece of work by a French poet, Alain Chartier.
Alain Chartier’s poem is a medieval romance and Keats poem is all about knights, faeries and fair women, these are all related with medieval times. Consequently, when Keats took Chartier’s title as his title he was associating his poem, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ with Chartier’s poem, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Porphyria’s Lover’s title however is original but before it was published as ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, it was published under two other names. Its first name was simply ‘Porphyria’. I think Browning decided against this title because it was purely based on the victim, Porphyria. It did not give us any clues as to who the narrator is.
The second title, Dramatic Lyrics, is actually not just the title of one poem but a collection of poems. All of these were written by Browning. Later in 1863 Browning changed the title for the final time to ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. This title was perfect because it tells us who the speaker and victim both are. It also gives a mysterious atmosphere, as we never really find out the name of the speaker. Porphyria’s Lover is a poem written by Robert Browning. Robert Browning was born in 1812 and died at the age of 77 in 1889. He is known for writing dramatic verses in dramatic monologues. This poem consists of one stanza 60 lines long.
The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b and this is Robert Browning’s first ever, short dramatic monologue of many to come. The monologue is told in first person by Porphyria’s Lover and the speaker does not change throughout the whole poem. Sonnet 18 is like Porphyria’s Lover in the sense that the narrator does not change. The narrator is not really known because it could be Shakespeare or someone else as it never gives the exact name. What we do know is that this is what the narrator is saying to his beloved. Sonnet 18 is a very famous sonnet written by William Shakespeare in approximately 1593.
William Shakespeare was alive between the years 1564 and 1616. He was an English poet/playwright and is known across the globe for his great writing skills. This was one of the 154 sonnets to be written by Shakespeare and is sometimes referred to as ‘Shall I Compare Thee’. The title is Sonnet 18 because Shakespeare wrote so many sonnets and he found it easier to number them rather to give a specific name to them. Sonnets were originated in Italy but soon spread to England during the 16th century, this is why the word sonnet comes from the Italian word sonetto which means a little song.
The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g and the rhythm in a sonnet is written in iambic pentameter. This means that there are five stressed beats and five unstressed beats per line making 10 syllables in each line of the 14 lines in a sonnet. Sonnets are made up of three quatrains and one rhyming couplet and the final two lines in Shakespeare’s sonnets are usually used to prove his point. The weather in Sonnet 18 is left up to the reader to decide. I imagine that it is an actual summer’s day and the narrator is questioning how perfect this day really is compared to his beloved.
He is taking notes while contemplating his surroundings. Porphyria’s Lover is different because the poet uses pathetic fallacy to describe the weather. On this particular night, it is raining and windy. So windy that it is tearing down the trees, ‘It tore the elm-tops down for spite’ and trying to upset the lake. In these first four lines, Browning uses personification to describe both the wind and the lake. His use of imagery creates a very sinister atmosphere and when Porphyria enters the house the atmosphere changes. She lights the fire, this creates a very cosy and secure atmosphere.
This is probably a build up to what happens next making the reader very surprised and confused. The setting of La Belle Dame Sans Merci is slightly different because it is a very medieval atmosphere. The setting is a bit like a medieval fairytale, it takes place on a late autumn day. You can just imagine brown leaves slowly falling and settling on the dark murky lake. This mood is somewhat different to the other poems. It is very lonely and mysterious; the poet drops subtle hints about the setting rather than giving it away. It is up to the reader to find out.
All of these poems focus on someone’s beloved. In La Belle Dame Sans Merci, it is the beautiful lady. She has long hair and wild eyes. She moves very gracefully and is often said to be related to a faery, ‘a faery’s child’. This lady is immaculate. Maybe too perfect which is what the knight soon finds out. In Porphyria’s Lover, it is Porphyria, the victim. She has long blonde hair, her skin is very pale and she is blue-eyed. This is like a dream character and once again, she is too good to be true. Sonnet 18 is very different to these poems mainly because it is not a narrative poem.
He is comparing his beloved to a summer’s day. He does not tell us much about the appearance of this person. He simply tells us that her beauty will last forever and ‘Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st’ that his beloved will not lose possession of the beauty that his beloved owns. These poems all have a few great descriptions such as in Porphyria’s Lover. The most memorable thing in that poem was Porphyria’s yellow hair. It is first mentioned when she comes in from the rain, dripping and wet, she lets her hair fall. It is mentioned again later on and we find out that her hair is yellow.
The colour yellow is very often associated with pureness and being angelic. Browning obviously knew what he was doing by describing Porphyria as so beautiful, innocent and perfect. When she was killed, the reader questions how her lover can kill someone as saintly as her. In line 20 ‘And spread o’er all her yellow hair’, it seems as if Porphyria is tempting the narrator as she spreads her hair above them both. The narrator collects her yellow hair and winds it around her neck. This makes the reader question, why did he do it with her hair. We never find out, so once again it is up to he reader to figure out why. One thing that I will link with La Belle Dame Sans Merci is flowers. The first time flowers are introduced is when the narrator is describing the knight. ‘I see a lily on thy brow’, obviously there is not really a lily on his brow. Lilies are white and this sentence means that his brow is white causing him to look sick and ill. Lilies are also connected to death. This does not mean that he is dead but he looks very close to it. In the same stanza, a rose is mentioned. ‘And on thy cheeks a fading rose’ means that his cheeks are very pale and only have a slight pinkish tint.
A rose is also often used to describe a romantic relationship between two people. As you read on you find out about the fading romance between the knight and the lady. Keats uses very effective metaphors in this stanza that immediately make the poem more interesting. In stanza five, the knight makes his lover a garland and a bracelet made of flowers. This is telling us that it is spring or autumn and that the two people are very happy and that the knight is deeply in love. Sonnet 18 revolves a lot around nature. Shakespeare uses great imagery for this. In line 3-4, personification is used.
Shakespeare is telling us that it is windy in May, which irritates the buds, and summer is too short. In line 5-6 ‘Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines’ is telling us that sometimes it is too hot. The eye of heaven being the sun. He also says exactly the opposite in the next line saying that sometimes there is no sun and it is too cold. He uses metaphors and personification in these two lines. In line 9, he is saying that your beauty shall stay forever. He is saying this because he thinks summer is the most beautiful season and instead of personification, he is using the opposite.
He is using a non-living thing and applying it to his beloved ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade’. Line 8 includes the word ‘untrimmed’. In line 11, Shakespeare mentions the word ‘shade’. In line 12, the metaphor is complete. Shakespeare finally tells us that plants can grow. So far the kind of language he has used (buds, shines, dimmed, fade, shade), has implied that he is building a plant. He starts from the bud, sunlight and rain help plants to grow. If a plant is in shade for a long time it will die but Shakespeare ended the metaphor by declaring that plants do grow. Shakespeare gave great descriptions to all of these things.
The first line of all three poems are extremely different. Shakespeare decided to start Sonnet 18 with a question. This is a rhetorical question, as he does not really expect an answer. This immediately engages the reader. Browning takes a different approach and instead his first line is used to describe the setting of the poem. My personal opinion is that it is not as effective because of this. La Belle Dame Sans Merci’s starting sentence is rather strange. Like Sonnet 18, it starts with a question; ‘O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,’ . Again, questions are a very useful way to start a piece of writing.
Keats also starts by using archaic words. This phrase is repeated several times through the poem and I think that it is a very successful opening. Some of the words used in these poems can be tricky as some have double meanings. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 the word ‘temperate’ in line 2. Shakespeare is saying that his beloved is more calm/balanced than summer. In addition temperate can be used to describe mild temperatures. In Shakespeare’s time, this word was used to describe ‘a balance of the “humours”’. This means that you have the right amount of different fluids in your body.
Shakespeare is telling us that his beloved is perfect in a hidden way. In La Belle Dame Sans Merci the words ‘manna dew’ in stanza 7. Manna is food that was miraculously given to the Israelites according to the Jewish scriptures. It was when Moses freed the Jew from slavery in Egypt. This was known as food from heaven. If the lady can supply that food for the knight, it implies that the lady is different and supernatural. Looking at it from another point of view, it could be linked to slavery because at the end of the ballad the knight is a slave to the beautiful lady.
Both of these words are very different, I think they were used because of the time the poets were living in for that reason you can say that their lifestyles affected their poetry. Porphyria’s Lover is the most recent poem out of the three and because of this, I think it is the most different. It uses more modern language in contrast to the other two. Sonnet 18 and La Belle Dame Sans Merci use quite a few archaic words and words that relate to the time they were written in. An example of this is La Belle Dame Sans Merci ‘Hath thee in thrall’ .
Shakespeare and Keats seemed to use quite a few of the same techniques such as starting the poem with a question and using words with double meanings. On the other hand, La Belle Dame Sans Merci and Porphyria’s Lover are quite similar. Both of the poets tell the story of two men who fall in love with two women, they are trapped in love, and soon they are driven crazy by their love for their beloved. Both of these men have the same problem because they are madly in love with a woman but something is preventing them being together. They each suffer great amounts of pain and both these poets look on the negative side of love and being let down.
On the contrary, Sonnet 18 is quite a happy poem and looks at the positive side of love. In his poem he is praising his beloved, an example of this is ‘Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade’, this means that death will never brag that he has you. In spite of this all poems are about three things; love, death and immortality. The last line of all three poems are very interesting in comparison to their first. Shakespeare ends it with a typical Shakespearian ending. This is because the final two lines of Shakespeare’s sonnets are used to prove his point.
He tells us that as long as this poem lives, this will give life to you. I think this is a great ending and it gives us a small clue as to who his beloved is. Porphyria’s Lover ends in ‘And yet God has not said a word! ’ this makes the narrator sound pleased with himself, judging from the punctuation mark at the end of the line. This is a very mysterious ending and the interpretation is left to the reader. I like this because there will never be a right answer to this and everyone can have his or her different opinions. Keats ends his ballad by repeating something he said a few stanzas back ‘And no birds sing’.
I thought this was the most successful ending as it was using repetition. In addition to this, the sentence type was very short and final, very decisive. It tells you one last thing; the knight is always going to be lonely and makes the reader feel very sympathetic towards the knight. In conclusion, all of these poems have their similarities and differences, despite this, they all speak very passionately about the feeling of love. The poem that I felt most engaged in was La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The descriptions were very deep and involved some thought, the actually story was heartbreaking and Keats made it feel very real.
I felt like one of the narrators, fully involved in the story and watching the whole thing take place before my very eyes. Regardless of this, the other two poems were very interesting, however I did not feel as engaged as I did when reading La Belle Dame Sans Merci. In a way, it is very hard to compare these poems, as you have to keep in mind the style the poet writes on and the time it was written. All of these poems were very passionate and as I said in the beginning, they all have a tremendously different aspects on the topic, love.