Contrastive Analysis of Three Elizabethan Love Sonnets
Humanism inspired Elizabethan poets to explore human’s emotions. Among the literary works composed during this exploration, Sonnet 31 from Astrophel and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 75 from Amoretti by Edmund Spencer and Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare reveal the Elizabethan poets’ different attitudes towards love.
In Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 31, love is unattainable and sadness prevails. In the first place, Sir Philip Sidney employs the imagery of the moon which always alludes to solitude and coldness to demonstrate his sadness of being rejected. He uses adjectives and adverbs to tinge the moon with lovesickness as he has been suffering from. For example, in the first line “With how steps, Oh Moon, thou climb’st the skies!”, “sad” serves as an indicator of the emotion of the whole sonnet. The emotion is further expressed in “” where “silently” slows down the rhyme and suggests a feeling of slight loneliness; and “how wan a face” (also “thy languished grace” in line 7) refers to the pale moon and implies the poet’s drawn face caused by lovesickness.
In addition, rhetorical questions are used in the sestet to imply his beloved's characteristics that cause him pain. The blame conveyed by these questions further shows his pessimism towards love. In these questions, he actually asks whether constant love is considered to be the
lack of “wit” (the first question) and whether heavenly beauties “love to be loved” but keep rebuffing their pursuers out of conceit (the second and the third questions); and he indicates in his last question that such practice is “ungratefulness” rather than “virtue”. To be more specific, “Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?” suggests that the speaker finally loses heart after futile attempts to pursue his love and this retreat may reflect that the speaker is not firmly committed to his love and regards rejection as the end of his pursuit rather than a common obstacle that lovers are sure to stumble on. Therefore, he stops his pursuit and attributes his pain totally to the pride and scorn of his beloved which are shown in the second and the third questions. In the last question: “Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?”, “virtue” is scorned as “ungratefulness” instead of common interpretation of morality and beauty. This interpretation of “virtue” also reveals his obsession with the plight brought about by lovesickness, because he belongs to “whom that love doth posses” but is still rejected. Therefore, he is hurt by the “unreasonable” rejection which can only be explained as “ungratefulness”. This paradoxical explanation of “virtue” may be seen as a natural result of his passive nature reflected in the first three questions. However, the speaker does not grow a disgust of love itself. In fact, the four questions serve not only as blames for “ungratefulness” but also as appeals to people that constant love should not remain unrequited.
In Sonnet 75 by Edmund Spenser, the speaker is determined and confident to perpetuate his love although love is mortal. First, the scene of trying to write the lover’s name on the sand reflects the speaker’s firm commitment to his love. In the first quatrain, the speaker declares that he wrote his beloved’s name upon the sand and it was washed away by waves. But the speaker does not give up and “wrote it with a second hand”. Still, his efforts are in vain because “came the tide” and washed it away again. In this quatrain, “name”, the practice of writing the name on the sand and “waves (tide)” can be the allusions to the speaker’s beloved, his efforts to eternalize his love and the powers such as fading passion, quarrels or even death that subdue their love. Clearly, it is impossible to leave permanent signs on a beach where they are bound to be eroded away. In the same way, love, an emotion only existing between mortal beings, is subjected to earthly troubles of fading passion, quarrels and death. Yet, the speaker determines to do so although it is in vain. Therefore, he is firmly committed to his love, or he should not have the courage to preserve it against all odds.
Second, the response to his beloved further strengthens the resoluteness. In the second quatrain and the couplet, the beloved sympathizes with the speaker and points out that her name and she herself are mortal. The speaker surely knows this but says “Not so,” because he believes that his verses can eternalize her “rare virtues” and even defeat death. In this
part, “waves/tide” and the practice of writing “her” name on the sand refer to death and the verses. This reflects that Spenser believes that love is immortal.
In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, love is expressed by comparison between his beloved and summer with great passion. Shakespeare also believes that the sonnet can immortalize his love. After addressing a question: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare depicts his beloved woman as “more lovely and more temperate”. Shakespeare then refers to the defects of summer in the following lines that a fine summer day is sometimes spoiled by “rough winds” (line 3); summer is too short (line 4); the sun, “the eye of heaven”, sometimes shines too hot (line 5); the sun often turns dim (line 6); and summer’s beauty is withering as it moves into autumn (line 7 and 8).On the contrary, the beloved’s “summer time”, i.e. her beauty, is not short but eternal and “shall not fade” (line 9); her beauty, “that fair thou ow’st”, does not change or even disappear with the ups and downs of life (line 10); and it does not subject to Death (line
11). Finally, Shakespeare declares that his beloved’s “eternal summer” depends on his firm confidence in his verses which are supposed to survive the test of time (line 12) and eternalize their love (line 13 and 14). On the whole, “eternal” is the key word of the Sonnet 18. It is used directly to modify the fine nature of his beloved (“But thy eternal summer shall not fade”) and the immortality of his poem (“When in
eternal lines to time thou grow’st”) and further intensified by the comparison between the fickleness of summer and the steadiness and longevity of his beloved’s beauty.
It is explored in the three sonnets that pessimism is prevailing in Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 31 while optimism is seen in Edmund Spenser’s Sonnet 75 and William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.
For Sonnet 31 and Sonnet 75, the contrasting emotions are caused by the beloved’s different attitudes towards the speakers and the contrasting characteristics of the speakers themselves. In Sidney’s Sonnet 31, the beloved rebuffs the pursuits of the speaker and this serves as the cause for the speaker’s sadness. On the other hand, in Spenser’s Sonnet 75, the beloved reminds the speaker that his persistence in trying to eternalize their love turns out in vain because they will die after all and so will their love. This might be seen as mild rejection. But more likely, the reminder merely reflects her pity for the indefatigable pursuer. Therefore, such pity is likely to function as an actual incentive to the speaker.
The speaker’s nature also weighs much in determining the emotion of a poem. The difference between the two speakers’ natures can be illustrated by the firmness of their commitment to love. In Sidney’s Sonnet 31, nothing except for “constant love” is mentioned about how he or his fellow moon pursues love and it is possible that “constant love” is inflated. Even if there is no inflation, the speaker is still not a steadfast
pursuer because he blames his beloved for “ungratefulness” while a steadfast pursuer tends to tolerate it. Therefore, the speaker is infirm in his pursuit of love. In contrast, In Spenser’s Sonnet 75, “constant love” is shown through the speaker’s persistence in trying to write his beloved’s name on the sand and made clear when he claims in the third quatrain and the couplet to eternalize their love in the sonnet.
For Sonnet 31 and Sonnet 18, the contrasting emotions are demonstrated by imageries used to address their beloveds and, again, the contrasting characteristics of the speakers themselves. The imagery in Sonnet 31 is a wan Moon at night and that in Sonnet 18 is a summer day with the golden sun. Night is cool while a summer’s day is fiercely hot; the moon is glowing while the sun is glaring. The stark contrast alludes to the speakers’ states of mind—one is moderate and cold and the other is intense and passionate.
In terms of the speaker’s nature, Shakespeare also claims to eternalize his love in the sonnet. Yet, this resolution is not shown by persistence but rather by overwhelmingly grand verses. Unlike in the other two sonnets, Shakespeare does not hint in Sonnet 18 at the beloved woman’s attitude towards his showing of affection. In other words, it is possible that it is another one-way love as depicted in Sidney’s. But his confidence, as shown in “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” spares no room for rejection.