Love is an all-too-common subject of poetry, the short poetic form being an elegant and evocative way to convey the complex ways people can love and be loved by others. To that end, examining and comparing the ways in which love is presented in the works of some of history’s greatest poets allows us to see the broad spectrum available to us for poetry. William Shakespeare’s Sonnets 18 and 147 both demonstrate an idealized form of personal love, in which the lover supplicates themselves before the beloved (and is figuratively made sick by this love). Comparing and contrasting Shakespeare’s love poetry, it is clear that Sonnet 18’s approach to love is more jubilant and reverent, while Sonnet 147 depicts love as a disease that flies in the face of all reason.
In many of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, the type of love being conveyed is that of a joyful, worshipful love in which the poet themselves falls at the feet of those they love. Shakespeare’s approach to love is quite diverse, being far more celebratory in Sonnet 18 than in Sonnet 147. Sonnet 18’s speaker is a completely awestruck by the woman he is speaking to/about, comparing her to “a summer’s day” (line 1). His jubilation at his subject is increased even further by his subsequent claim that no one is more “lovely and more temperate” than she (line 2). Like Sonnet 147, Shakespeare still talks about love in the context of decay in this one; the summer’s day always ends, as “every fair from fair sometime declines / by chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d” (lines 7).
The finite nature of life is solidified in this sonnet and still acknowledged, but unlike the other mentioned poems, the speaker believes his love will win out: her “eternal summer shall not fade / nor lose possession of that faur thou owest” (lines 9-10). The presence of this beloved within the sonnet defies death, offering a decidedly more optimistic view of love as a concept than in the other poems presented. While everyone’s lover dies, Shakespeare provides a greater sense of solace in the continuation of their adoration for that person after death.
Sonnet 147 takes this notion of love in the face of decay much more strictly and cynically; unlike the pure, transcendent love of the speaker in Sonnet 18, the love Sonnet 147’s speaker experiences is almost like a disease. The speaker’s love is described as “fever,” “disease,” and so on, and the poet even says that “desire is death.” Love itself is divorced from reason, which is “the physician to my love” – meaning that reason is meant to help mitigate and regulate the sheer passion the poet feels (line 5). However, since his love is so strong, his reason leaves him, “Angry that his prescriptions are not kept” (line 6). As reason has left him, the speaker has no choice but to continue his love, which makes him spiral down further and further into a state of insanity. Love in Sonnet 147 is a manic state of increased sickness, as close connections are made to the concepts of love and madness.
However, Shakespeare does not mean to disparage love, but simply show the inexorable and intense nature of love and how it spreads inside a person to an almost terminal level. The speaker of Sonnet 147 is nearly dead from love, his reason having left him; in many ways, this is not dissimilar to the eternal dedication of the speaker of Sonnet 18. Unlike in Sonnet 18, however, the speaker of Sonnet 147 becomes more disillusioned about his love by the end: “For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright / Who art as black as hell, as dark as night” (lines 13-14). This final couplet is a dramatic shift from the poet’s perception of love to that point; while Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 shows the speaker feeling uplifted by their love, Sonnet 147’s speaker is betrayed and disappointed by the reality of the love he finds himself in. Love is something he would like to see cured, though he says he is “past cure,” reaching a point of no return that severely sickens and weakens him (line 9). In this way, Sonnet 147 shows the dangerous, sickly and negative nature of love, a far cry from the giddy optimism of Sonnet 18.
Comparing Shakespeare’s approaches in the two poems, it is clear that they both link love to some kind of decay, but Shakespeare’s approach is more optimistic. Shakespeare takes this fact of death and entropy and turns love into a force that will overcome it; in Sonnet 18, the speaker’s love for his beloved will continue long after she is dead, and in Sonnet 147 love is characterized as a disease only insofar as it defies reason and gradually infects and consumes everything about him. The Shakespeare of Sonnet 18 would have none of that, choosing to hold on to his love for all of time; this is in direct opposition to Sonnet 147’s more cynical view of love. To that end, these two poems seem to occupy a fascinating set of polar opposites when it comes to the treatment of love in poetry; while love lifts Shakespeare up, it can also drag him down into a world of decay and misery.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 18.”
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 147.”