Eng. Comp. 102 Contrast Essay - March 7, 2005
This Comparison essay between William Shakespeares sonnets 116, 130, and 138 was actually pretty decently constructed for what it was.
Comparison Between Sonnets 116, 130, 138
The human concept of love has meant many things to many people, and nearly the very meaning of the word has seemed to change with time. Every individual has his or her own idea of what love is or should be. Yet even within one mind it seems there is always some ambiguity as to the true meaning of the idea--the emotion--of love. Perhaps one of the many names that come to mind when on the subject of love is William Shakespeare. This was a man who wrote about love and romance as if he were an authority on the subject; however, his own portrayal of love seemed to differ between each of his works. Within his sonnets alone exists myriad different complex and well-versed ideas and emotions centered on the elusive concept of love. Each sonnet is written in its own distinct style with very different tones in regard to their common theme. Specifically, some very stark dissimilarities can be seen when contrasting Shakespeare’s sonnets numbered 116, 130, and 138; these three sonnets show extraordinary variance in not only the meaning of love as portrayed within the sonnets, but also in the style and attitude with which they are written. These powerful sonnets each define unique and contrasting concepts of love, which become bountifully clear when weighed against one another.
The first sonnet within the group, Sonnet 116, is perhaps the more unique out of the three in question. To begin with, this Sonnet is written with a more classical, more somber tone than the other two. The concept of love as described in this poem is one very common to the time period in which it was written. Here, love is portrayed in it’s most romanticized, most infinite, most unyielding, (and perhaps most ridiculous) form, very common to Shakespearean drama. Love is defined as unbending and unchanging, an “…ever fixed mark,” (Sonnet 116, Line 5) which can never be altered or undone. Shakespeare fortifies this powerful image of love by comparing it to the North Star, and conjures up an image of a love “/That looks upon tempests and is never shaken;/” (6). Next, he defines love as timeless, asserting that although those in love may change in time, aging and coming closer to death (“…his bending sickle’s compass come;”), their love for each other will remain absolutely unchanged: “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/ Within his bending sickle’s compass come;/ Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,” (9-10). Finally, he caps off this absolute definition of love by dispelling all possibility of any other definition of love, saying: “If this be error, and upon me prov’d…no man ever lov’d.” (13-14), basically stating that if this definition of love were to be proven false then love does not exist.
The next sonnet within the group, Sonnet 130, is a complete change of pace. Written in a more comedic tone, the central idea of love is vastly different here when contrasted against Sonnet 116. Sonnet 130 is written in a most relaxed, more reader friendly tone and is perhaps less cumbersome than Sonnet 116. Sonnet 130 contains much more imagery and, in fact, the bulk of the poem uses imagery in an attempt to poke
fun at those more classical, more rigid definitions of love that were common to works of the time. Instead of the writer comparing ‘his love’ to common images of beauty or strength, (the sun, stars, a strong tree, etc.) this sonnet contrasts these images with the love in question, arriving at a more realistic, and somewhat humorous, definition of love. Shakespeare begins simply, establishing directly the realistic tone of the poem, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;” (Sonnet 130, Line1). He proceeds throughout the entirety of this sonnet in much the same manner—offering fourth handfuls of beautiful imagery and then contrasting his mistress to these images. Where Sonnet 116 described youthful love with the image of “…rosy lips and cheeks” (Sonnet 116, Line 9), Sonnet 130 goes the most realistic route: “I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,/ But no such roses see I in her cheeks;” (Lines 5-6). Though initially, this may lead the reader to feel disenchanted, it is simply realism; most people don’t have skin with coloration as vibrant as roses, his mistress doesn’t, and yet he loves her the same. Continuing on, Shakespeare contrasts the delightful scents of perfumes to “…the breath that from my mistress reeks.” (8). While entertaining indeed, this line is not to say that his mistress has some foul manner of dental affliction, it simply continues to build upon the view of this realistic love for a woman who is, indubitably, human. His lover is no goddess, and in fact, the speaker admits this openly in lines 11 and 12. Then in the closing lines, the poem takes a briefly honest and sincere tone. Lines 13 and 14 close the poem nicely, saying that although his mistress may pale in comparison to all of the aforementioned images of beauty (and, realistically, every human being does), he still loves her and thinks her a more rare specimen than any other. Compared to lines throughout the rest of
the sonnet, these last two are the most sincere in tone and feeling, without so much as a hint of sarcasm; although, instead of so terminally describing his love here as the only possible love (as done in the closing lines of Sonnet 116), he simply says his love is “…as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.” (Sonnet 130, Line14). Simply put, his love (or beloved one) is just as unique a love as any other.
Sonnet number 138, the final sonnet of the three, is not entirely different from the preceding Sonnet. While this sonnet uses no imagery whatsoever, and Sonnet 130 utilized imagery in nearly every line, the attitude towards love in this sonnet is very similar to that expressed in the previous sonnet. Aside from style, the prime difference between these two sonnets is perhaps the time dimension of love to which this sonnet speaks. This sonnet focuses more on the concept of a timeless love; not only a blind sort of love, but a love which endures, withstanding the test of time. The lovers in Sonnet 138 are past the days of comparing their own love to love in the infinite sense, (age sees no practicality in these matters). Instead, the reader can assume that the lovers have been together for much of their lives and remain in love by allowing their love to change to fit their change in age.
Unlike the immortal love described in Sonnet 116--a rigid, unbending love like a rock (which is unrealistic to say the least), the love depicted in Sonnet 138 is a flexible, realistic love which changes as time progresses in order to survive. This love is a love which bends instead of breaking, to withstand the changes in the human condition through aging. The two lovers depicted in this sonnet suspend disbelief when around one another. Both are no longer young, and what’s more, they know it. The speaker
elaborates in the first lines (Sonnet 138, Lines1-3) upon how he and his lover flatter one another, knowing full well that they cannot possibly be one-hundred percent honest:
“When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,…”
These lines can be interpreted slightly differently; perhaps the speaker knows that his lover is flattering him by making him feel youthful and simply suspends his own disbelief, or perhaps when he says: “…I do believe her,…” (2) this means he believes that, because of her love for him, she sees him as youthful.
Throughout the bulk of Sonnet 138 there exists touches of the same aforementioned ambiguity in connotation. Does the speaker think that his lover’s words are simple flattery? Or does he think that her love for him causes her to see him in a different light than the light of reality? Whatever the case, he illustrates the practicality of this flattery in saying: “…Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,” (5) basically, she is making him feel good about himself, thinking that he is youthful (therefore attractive) in his lover’s eyes. He “…credit(s) her false-speaking tongue:” (7) appreciating her for the compliment, and perhaps returning it, knowing full well that on both of their parts it is simple flattery: “On both sides…simple truth supprest.” (8). Then, he earnestly reminds the reader that he never claimed himself to be young, she never claimed to be untruthful (9-10), and that there is no use in being realistic about exactly how old they really are, “And age in love…not to have years told:” (12); then in closing, alludes to the fact that their relationship is still alive with a sly double meaning using the
word “with” instead of “by” or “to” in line 13: “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,/ And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.”.
These sonnets, so different in many ways, are still the work of one writer. What indistinctness revolves around the concept of love in other works? How many definitions of the word love are there; or are there any real definitions at all? After all, love is simply a word and only carries the descriptive power which we assign it. Perhaps, love could be the unchanging, unyielding, and powerful entity that bears the test of time through all. Or maybe love can change: bending and molding but never breaking or losing strength in order to withstand the onslaught of years. Is true love fleeting—or is it infinite? The answer to all of the questions about love are probably somewhere in between. The only real, assured truth is that there are as many ways of defining love as there are of feeling it; love is a human emotion—as difficult to define as it is to describe.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 116.” Literature and Ourselves. Ed.Gloria M. Henderson, Bill Day, Sandra Stevenson Waller. Longman: New York, NY. 341
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 130” Henderson, Day, Waller. 342
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 138” Henderson, Day, Waller. 342