Poetry Analysis: Essay Three [23 out of 25, 2000/2001]


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1.a) Read ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’ by Christopher Marlowe or ‘To Virgins’ by Robert Herrick. Analyse how the poem attempts to convey feelings of love or passion, and attempts to be persuasive. Say to what extent you think it succeeds.

{Essay CONTENTS: Formal features: rhyme scheme; syllabic structure; versification; stanza structure; perspective; ballad form; Stanza one: imperative opening; rosebud symbol; passage of time; Stanza two: natural lexical set; declarative mood; Stanza three: declarative mood continuation; benefit-of-hindsight carpe diem philosophy; Stanza four: imperative mood; present tense used to refer to past, present, and future; Evaluation; Jump to essay 1.b).}
Throughout To Virgins, Robert Herrick employs an ‘abab’ rhyme scheme, coupled with an ‘8787’ syllable mix, in each of the four compact stanzas, to put forward his ‘while you’ve got it, flaunt it’ message. Versification is very ordered throughout the poem; Herrick knows what he wants to say, and the desired tone in which to say it – this assuredness in his own mind helps make the poem more persuasive. The stanzas are all one-sentence long, with a colon or a semi-colon joining the two contrasting parts after the opening two lines (the apparently limitless youthful opportunities in love and relationships/the aged loss of beauty and chances). Written from a third person perspective, To Virgins comes across in a fun, playful ballad form that is reminiscent of youth. Such a free-flowing style makes the idea of losing one’s virginity seem trivial – not the massive, life-changing event that it is usually considered -and advised – to be. Herrick uses this style to good effect: in using it to convey his words of advice, the virgins will think that love and relationships are something to be enjoyed while youth is on their side; the ease with which the poem runs will encourage them to relax and enjoy themselves.[^]

In the first stanza, Robert Herrick uses an imperative opening sentence to set the persuasive mood and tone for the rest of the poem, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,”– advising the young female virgins to make the most of their youthful beauty. ‘Rosebuds’ is used as a symbol of youthful flourish, a metaphor for female beauty: both will eventually wilt and lose their sparkle. Herrick cautions the females in this stanza, “…while ye may,/Old Time is still a-flying:”, with the message that now is time for love and relationships – their chance will soon pass. The ‘Time’ idea is a metaphor for both the time of year, and the time of life, with the colon at the end of the second line providing a contrast between the springtime ‘rosebud’ beauty at its peak, and the ‘dying’ of pleasing external features: “And this same flower that smiles today,/Tomorrow will be dying.”[^]

The second stanza again uses a symbol from a natural lexical set as the metaphor for life/death/passing of beauty, “the Sun,/The higher he’s a-getting;/…race be run,/…nearer he’s to setting.” Through this stanza, the idea of beauty increasing, peaking, then passing is reiterated: the sun, like beauty, rises and sets. A factual, declarative mood is prevalent, as Herrick makes statements that he considers intrinsic to all mankind; he appears to be a wise man, voicing his reflective thoughts on life. The ‘this is the way it is’ manner in which he puts down such sweeping statements will have a great impact on the reader. The passage of the day in the stanza is a metaphor for a woman’s life; if we use Herrick’s analogy, it seems that the female audience members are at about 10am in their life, and they must make the most of it.[^]

A continuation of the declarative, factual mood is used throughout the third stanza, “The age is best, which is the first”, to underline the fact that he speaks the truth. Herrick appears to be relating a rather depressing message to the audience in saying, “…the worse, and worst/Times still succeed the former”: no matter how well youth is spent, bad times will always eventually outweigh the good. This is a particularly effective message – if bad times will always replace the best, then it makes sense to seize the day (especially in terms of love and relationships) when one is still young and optimistic. Enjambment is used for the only time in the poem where the lines, “…and worst/Times…”, run into each other: Herrick is evidently hoping to have (and, in my opinion, succeeding in making) a substantial impact with this cautionary observation.[^]

A return to the imperative mood that opened the poem is evident in the opening two lines of the fourth and final stanza. This is an effective method, used by Herrick to reiterate, argue his point, and persuade his intended female virgin audience. “Then be not coy, but use your time,/And while ye may, go marry:”, is an emphatic, forceful (for the first time) message used by Herrick as he closes the poem with feeling and vigour. Another emphatic, emotive and declarative message is transmitted by the closing two lines of the poem (again showing the contrast used throughout the poem), “For having lost but once your prime,/You may for ever tarry.” The present tense is used to refer to the present, past and future tenses in this stanza; this Christmas Carol-esque foresight will have a major impact on the reader.[^]

In conclusion, I believe that Robert Herrick succeeds in persuading young virgins to make the most of youthful energy and beauty. The use of contrasts throughout the poem hammer home the message that ‘nothing ever lasts forever’; the use of natural metaphors are effective vehicles for the flourishing/dying passage of beauty; ideas are presented as unquestionable truths; the sound of the poem is that of experience; and the concise, ordered nature of the poem ably demonstrates the poet’s feelings of love and passion, while persuading the younger generations to seize the opportunities available to them – otherwise, like Herrick, you’ll regret it when you’re older and the height of your beauty has long since left.[^]

1.b) Look at two other poems about love, passion, sex, or relationships. Showing awareness of the contexts of the poems, analyse the literary and linguistic techniques used to communicate ideas in the poem.

{Essay CONTENTS: Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXXX: context; ‘Mistres’ as emblematic vehicle for all women described in love poetry; Mundane, accurate descriptions; Use of insulting verb; Final rhyming couplet – poem’s message; Evaluation of Sonnet CXXX; Browning’s Sonnet XLIII: How Do I Love Thee? – purpose and form; Concrete & abstract; Quantification of love – enjambment; Relation of time and personal experience to her love; Relation of death and religion to her love; Concrete descriptions of enduring love; Use of similes and specific adverbs; Rediscovery of childish passion; Emotional gamut – parallelism; Evaluation of Sonnet XLIII; Conclusion; Return to essay 1.a).}

William Shakespeare’s Elizabethan-style (‘ababcdcdefefgg’ rhyme scheme) sonnet, Sonnet CXXX, is a literary reaction in the form of a realistic love poem, highlighting his contemporaries’ overuse of similes and metaphors through describing his ‘love’.[^]

Shakespeare’s ‘Mistres’ [Early Modern English spellings are used throughout this analysis] not only refers to his female love, it is a vehicle for all the women described in love poetry. In comparing his ‘Mistres’ unfavourably with common ideals of beauty, “Currall is farre more red, than her lips red”, Shakespeare acknowledges the fact that his love doesn’t exceed the beauty of nature; makes his literary points that similes/metaphors are becoming overused and tired, and that most poems don’t actually tell us that much about the female; and speaks out against received notions of beauty.[^]

“If haires be wiers, black wiers grow on her head:”, would have been seen as a none-too-complimentary description because ‘wiers’ were only considered charming if they were ‘blonde’ or ‘golden’; Shakespeare uses such a comparison for the purposes of down-to-earth, mundane human accuracy. “If snow be white, why then her brests are dun:”, is another example where an accurate, human description is used, in stark contrast with the commonly hyperbolic literature of the time.[^]

Use of the insulting verb, “reekes”, is a further demonstration of the fact that his object of affection is not perfect – she doesn’t smell as delightful as “some perfumes”.[^]

Twelve lines during which the female is accurately described by being unfavourably compared to the beauty of nature, is followed by the crux of the sonnet, “And yet by heven I thinke my love as rare,/As any she beli’d with false compare.” This rhyming couplet finale holds the key to the poem: he has found somebody he loves wholeheartedly; he doesn’t need to exaggerate her actual beauty because he loves her for what she is. It serves to underline the fact that true love need not be hyperbolised – if anything, love is trivialised by such absurd comparisons of beauty, “false compare”, where the female is above nature.[^]

Thus, Shakespeare accuses his contemporaries of devaluing the notion of love, by needlessly hyperbolising their objects of affection. “And yet by heven I thinke my love as rare,/As any she beli’d with false compare”, is Shakespeare’s way of signing off by saying that he thinks his love is as special as any of the other poets’ exaggerated love: the ‘she’ in this sense means all females in love poetry in general who have been unrealistically described by other poets – inaccurately portrayed and put on a pedestal as unattainable objects.[^]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XLIII: How Do I Love Thee?, on the other hand, is an attempt to quantify the love she feels for her man. In the form of a Petrarchan sonnet (‘abbaabbacdcdcd’ rhyme scheme), she makes use of a number of linguistic techniques to convey the love she possesses.[^]

Firstly, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”, is an example of a concrete mathematical idea being used to ‘measure’ love, an abstract, intangible concept.[^]

“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height”, shows the quantifying of love in terms of dimension (with the idea that her love is vast and all-encompassing- it couldn’t be any bigger- developing), with the use of enjambment to allow the line to run on and say…[^]

… “My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight”. This uses the ideas of time and personal experience to explain her love, with enjambment employed again, as the line continues…[^]

… “For the ends of Being and ideal Grace”, relates to death (till death do us part: her love will last forever) and religion (which would have been particularly pertinent at the time – the Victorian era had very strict moral values and religious beliefs, thus increasing the impact of the poem).[^]

Concrete words and ideas are used, “sun and candlelight”, which also conjure up ideas of day and night/time passing – her love will endure.[^]

Outside experience is used when she states, “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right”. Her love is comparable to things she can only imagine – her own experience is inadequate to measure and sum up such love. Browning relates her love to honourable men, “Right… as they turn from Praise”; her love is as pure and noble as these men. “strive” is used as a deliberately strong, emotive verb: her love is unbreakable and full of good intentions. Adverbs such as, “freely”, and, “purely”, are used to modify the way in which she loves her man – saying she merely loves him seems insufficient to her.[^]

The “passion” she felt for her (abstract) “old griefs…childhood’s faith” is now channelled into loving her man. The theme of religion is again apparent through the use of the comparison, “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose/With my lost saints,” – as she grew older, and religion took more of a back seat for her, she lost her love for such holy things… until she discovered her man, that is, and found she could love him with such childish, innocent passion.[^]

Browning uses the act of living and the whole emotional gamut to describe her feelings towards this man, “…breath,/Smiles, tears, of all my life!” The ‘tears’ relate back to her ‘old griefs’, demonstrating an employment of parallelism.[^]

A humble ending, “… if God choose,/I shall but love thee better after death”, proves that Browning hopes her love does indeed endure (while also reiterating the religious theme); with God’s blessing, her love will be everlasting. The humility she demonstrates when acknowledging that her love in the afterlife is out of her hands (she will always love him, given the chance), is a refreshing break from the usual hyperbolic final thought, and much more effective because of it (Shakespeare would, himself, doubtless approve). Incredibly, absurdly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning succeeds in counting the number of ways in which she loves her man.[^]

Thus, William Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXXX and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XLIII: How Do I Love Thee?, both achieve their respective aims, through the use of different sonnet forms and varied linguistic techniques. Shakespeare’s thinly-veiled attack on the misuse of similes and metaphors would have been duly noted by his sixteenth/seventeenth century contemporaries, whilst Browning’s all-encompassing quantification of her love serves to explain, measure, and count the ways in which she loves ‘thee’, relating them to the Victorian-era poetry readers. At first glance, one would be tempted to say that Browning’s sonnet is infinitely more romantic than Shakespeare’s. However, when Shakespeare’s poem is analysed, and found to say (albeit in a highly poetic manner) that he loves his woman ‘warts and all’ – that she has made him as happy as anybody with classic, stereotyped, clichéd good looks – it becomes apparent that, despite their different aims, both are highly effective examples of love poetry.[^]

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Forty-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, learning programming languages, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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Posted in AS Level English [A1]

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