Love & Romance - As Old As Civilization - Romance - "Love's Grief" - The Impossible Woman

Romeo and Juliet - Text - Zefferelli (1968) - "What is a Youth?" - Luhrmann (1996)

Sonnet 116: From Observation to Argument - Sample Commentary - Sample Essay - Scratch Outline - Full Outline

Love & Romance

As Old As Civilization

Like death and meaning, love lies at the heart of Western literature and poetry. We see the role of love early on in the Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (where a courtesan lures the wild-man Enkidu into the city of Uruk, and where Ishtar's jealousy is catastrophic), in the Hebrew Bible (the bride and groom in The Song of Songs, Samson and Delilah, Jacob and Rachel, etc.) and in the Greek and Roman epics: in the Iliad the Trojan War starts because Paris runs away with the married Helen; in the Odyssey Odysseus is offered eternal love with a goddess yet makes an epic journey to get back to his mortal wife Penelope; in Aristophane's Lysistrata women withhold sex until men stop fighting; in Virgil's Aeneid Dido falls in love with Aeneas and throws herself on her own funeral pyre when he leaves her, etc.

Samson and Delilah  (1878) by Alexandre Cabanal (source: The Athenaeum, Wikimedia Commons)

Samson and Delilah (1878) by Alexandre Cabanal (source: The Athenaeum, Wikimedia Commons)

Helen and Cassandra  (1866) by Frederick Sandys. "This image accompanied a poem based on the Greek myth in which Cassandra admonishes Helen of Troy for her role in bringing about the Trojan War" (from Wikimedia Commons; source:

Helen and Cassandra (1866) by Frederick Sandys. "This image accompanied a poem based on the Greek myth in which Cassandra admonishes Helen of Troy for her role in bringing about the Trojan War" (from Wikimedia Commons; source:

Love is also central to late Medieval and early Modern literature, especially to the romances of the chivalric or courtly tradition (for example, the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere tears apart the Round Table).


1. Romance or romantic today usually refers to love relationships involving strong emotions and often sex.

2. Romantic in a literary context refers to the period from the end of the 18th C. to around 1832. This Romantic period is characterized by heightened emotion and idealism — in contrast to the rationalism of the 18th C. (often referred to as The Age of Reason) and the alleged staidness of the Victorian Period (mid to late 19th C.). Major Romantic writers include Austen and the Bronte sisters, and major poets include Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth (first generation) and Keats, Shelley and Byron (second generation).

3. The Romance tradition and The Romance refer to a Medieval tradition involving knights, ladies, a stylized chivalric and courtly relation between the sexes, old Celtic magic, Aurthurian legend, etc.

The idea of spiritual — as opposed to physical — love is crucial to the Romance and courtly tradition, key elements of which are linked to Christianity, the chivalric code, Arthurian romance, troubadour poets from eleventh century Southern France, Eleanor of Aquitaine (12th C.), and Fourteenth Century Italian poets such as Petrarch and Dante.

One important aspect of the courtly tradition is the spiritual elevation of the woman, which reaches a peak in the writing of Alighieri Dante (1265-1321). Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy links Classical and Christian literary traditions in many ways, one of these being the way in which Virgil (the Classical poet) guides Dante (the Christian poet) down and out of Hell. Because Virgil isn't Christian he can't guide Dante to Heaven, and so Beatrice (who is Christian) is called down from Heaven to guide Dante up the Mountain of Purgatory and into Paradise. 

Beatrice becomes a model for the unattainable, heavenly woman who guides man from his sinful nature up to Heaven. Curiously, this most idealized of women, is also a real woman, Beatrice Portinari. At the age of nine Dante fell in love with her (she was eight at the time) and stayed in love with her all his life, even after she married. In this way, she might be seen as the typical Lady of the courtly tradition -- married, unattainable, desirable, to be respected and served.

Dante Meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinità , by John Holiday, 1883 (Wikimedia Commons)

Dante Meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinità, by John Holiday, 1883 (Wikimedia Commons)

Here is a sonnet Dante wrote (in La Vita Nuova or The New Life, 1295) on the death of one of Beatrice's friends. In his preamble to the unnamed sonnet, Dante writes, "it pleased the Master of the Angels to call into His glory a damsel, young and of a gentle presence, who had been very lovely in the city I speak of: and I saw her body lying without its soul among many ladies, who held a pitiful weeping." For practical purposes, I have given the poem a title.

"Love's Grief"

Weep, Lovers, since Love’s very self does weep,

And since the cause for weeping is so great;

When now so many ladies, of such estate

In worth, show with their eyes a grief so deep:

For Death, the lout, has laid his leaden sleep

Upon a lady who was fair of late,

Defacing all our earth should celebrate, —

Yea all save virtue, which the soul does keep.

Now listen how much Love did honour her.

I myself saw him in his proper form

Bending above the motionless sweet dead,

And often gazing into Heaven; for there

The soul now sits which when her life was warm

Dwelt with the joyful beauty that is fled.

(From The New Life or La Vita Nuova, 1295, translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti — modernized by RYC)

The Impossible Woman

The  idea of woman as an evil temptress is at once opposite and complementary to the notion of woman as heavenly saviour. Woman as temptress goes back to many sources, such as Eve or Delilah in the Bible or Circe in The Odyssey. Since men have dominated literature historically, it could well be that the ideas of woman as chaste and heavenly and woman as lascivious and evil are simply a double projection of male fantasy. The Eagles express this possibility succinctly in the song, “One of These Nights”: "I’m looking for the daughter of the Devil himself, / I’m looking for an angel in white. / I’m looking for a woman who’s a little of both; / I can see her, but she’s nowhere in sight."

Virginia Woolf notes in A Room of One's Own (1929) that in the past women were represented by men, yet were seldom in a position economically and spatially (they require a room — besides the kitchen — of their own to write in) to give a full or rounded account of themselves. As a result,

[a] very queer, composite being thus emerges [in earlier literature]. Imaginatively [the woman] is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.

A recent take on gender roles in Cupid’s game of love can be found in the Portishead’s lyric, “Glory Box”:

I'm so tired of playing / Playing with this bow and arrow / Gonna give my heart away / Leave it to the other girls to play / For I've been a temptress too long / Just give me a reason to love you / Give me a reason to be a woman / I just wanna be a woman / From this time, unchained / We're all looking at a different picture / Through this new frame of mind / A thousand flowers could bloom / Move over, and give us some room


Romeo and Juliet

In the following excerpts from Romeo and Juliet (1597) the two Verona youths see each other for the first time at a party. Juliet (a Capulet) and Romeo (a Montague) fall in love without knowing that they belong to families that are at war with each other.


The following three excerpts are from Act 1, scene 5. I've added the rhyme scheme for the second excerpt to emphasize how poetic form (here a sonnet) can be integrated into dramatic structure. 

Romeo [sees Juliet across the room]: 
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear --
Beauty too rich for use, for Earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand
And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

Romeo [taking Juliet’s hand]: 
If I profane with my unworthiest hand                a
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:                       b
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand         a
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.         b
Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,   c
Which mannerly* devotion shows in this;       proper     b
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,            c
And palm to palm is holy palmers’* kiss.     pilgrim's      b  
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?         d
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.     e
Romeo: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.      d
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.             e
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.  f
Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.      f
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.           g
Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took?    h
Romeo: Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!   g
Give me my sin again. [He kisses her.]
Juliet                                    You kiss by th’ book.         h

Juliet: My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathèd enemy.

Zefferelli (1968)

"What is a Youth?" 

(by Nino Rota, words by Eugene Walter)

What is a youth? Impetuous fire / What is a maid? Ice and desire / The world wags on / A rose will bloom, it then will fade / So does a youth, so does the fairest maid / Comes a time when one sweet smile / Has a season for a while / Then love's in love with me / Some they think only to marry / Others will tease and tarry / Mine is the very best parry / Cupid, he rules us all / Caper the cape, but sing me the song / Death will come soon to hush us along / Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall / Love is a task and it never will pall / Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall / Cupid, he rules us all

Luhrmann (1996)


Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, 
That looks on tempests,* and is never shaken;  
It is the star to every wandering bark,*          
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
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, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.*    
   If this be error and upon me proved,        
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.  

*tempests = storms  bark = ship  edge of doom = Day of Judgment


From Observation to Argument

In writing an argument, you may need to start with an observation, yet make sure to go beyond that. Try to see more deeply into the text. Try to explain how the writer achieves a particular effect or explores a particular meaning. If you're stuck, try explaining the way one of the six categories could be applied to the poem. For instance, what is the spatial set-up? How is the spatial set-up important to the theme?

Below are examples of thesis statements that 1. merely observe what's in the text, 2. explain how the text works, and 3. explain how the text works and advance insightful angles of interpretation.

1. The great English Renaissance playwright William Shakespeare writes about love.

Shakespeare defines constant love.

Shakespeare gives a definition of love and then gives some analogies.

2. Shakespeare uses definition and analogy to illustrate the nature of true love.

Shakespeare uses definition and analogy to argue that true love transcends space and time.

3. Shakespeare’s sonnet is about true love, yet instead of using emotional love-scenarios to make his point, he uses abstract definitions and analogies. (I use this thesis statement in the sample essay below.)

Shakespeare’s use of abstraction (rather than emotional real-life scenarios) suggests that constant love is beyond this human world and that it may also be an exaggeration or type of madness. (The second half of this interpretation is based on the difficult last two lines of the sonnet — see the final paragraph of the commentary below).


Sample Commentary 

In “Sonnet 116,” Shakespeare divides his poem into four parts. In the first three parts (all of which are quatrains with the same rhyme scheme) he offers various serious definitions of love — at first using negative definition and then using two extended metaphors (or conceits).  In the last part (a couplet) he steps away from the seriousness and plays what seems to be a tricky verbal game that is not easy to understand.

The first four lines use repetition to give us a negative definition of love. He repeats words in various ways for different reasons: “love is not love which” redefines love; “alters when it alteration finds” uses “alters” as a possible alteration in sentiment and “alteration” as a possible alteration in circumstances. Because his point is vague, it can be applied to all sorts of situations—from still loving another when they get older and less attractive, to still loving another when they are in altered circumstances, such as economic straights. Still using repetition — “the remover to remove” — he argues that nothing can remove the love between true lovers — whether this “remover” is a circumstance or a rival.

In the next two quatrains Shakespeare uses two analogies, one spatial and one temporal. In the spatial one, he compares love to a fixed star — like the Pole Star — which can help boats in a tempest find their way to port. The analogy here is to a person who is lost in some way (depressed, upset, confused, a failure in some enterprise, etc.) and who is brought back to a normal state because of the unconditional love someone supplies.

In the second analogy, Shakespeare compares love to the soul, which outlasts the physical body: even after Time has destroyed youthful beauty (indicated by “rosy lips and cheeks”), one still loves the person; and even after time passes and one dies (indicated by “the edge of Doom”), one still loves the person. In this second analogy he is saying that love transcends time, just as in the first analogy he is saying that love transcends space.

Shakespeare’s poem is, for a love poem, rather logical and abstract. In some ways it is very close to John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”: Donne idealizes love by drawing analogies between love and objects (compasses) and cosmic spaces (the “trepidation of the spheres”), just as Shakespeare brings in the sickle’s compass and the space between the pole star and a ship on the ocean. This is very different in style and focus from another of Shakespeare’s sonnets, where he says, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” In that sonnet he rejects cosmic comparisons and other abstractions and idealizations, in favour of a more realistic appreciation of love. The final couplet of “Sonnet 116” may be applicable here, as it may be a sly indication that everything he says is a bit overblown. He states that if all these wonderful things he says about love are not true then he never wrote (which he obviously did), and adds, “nor no man ever loved,” which suggests that this definition of constant love may especially apply while one is in love, i.e. while one is in a sort of madness in which love seems both infinite and eternal.


Sample Essay

Sweet Words of Logic

It’s one a.m. and you finally slip your arm around her, pretty sure she just needs to hear a few poetic words. So you put on your huskiest bedroom voice, and tell her that her big dark beautiful eyes are concentric within a convex aperture, her silky hair is like a graph with parallel black lines, and her love is not true if she denies compliance with your logic.   

Next morning you curse Shakespeare, because you modelled your seduction on one of his sonnets -- number 116 to be exact. So, you take another look at the sonnet, just to make sure you got it right. To your horror, you find that this isn’t the type of poem you should have used to seduce anyone, because while Shakespeare’s sonnet is about love, he uses logic and analogy rather than emotion to make his point. 

The first stanza is like an argument a philosopher or lawyer might make, with its abstract and logical definition of what love is and is not. The poet uses abstract notions like “the remover,” which makes the poem different from the usual love poem, which would use words like “sweet lips,” “soft tongue,” or “bright eyes.” (Those would have been the right words to use last night!) If there is a woman being written to here, the poet doesn’t give her a name. He seems more interested in advancing a philosophical argument, which goes from defining love (lines 1-4), to giving analogies (lines 5-12), to concluding that his argument is not “false” (line 13).

After defining love, the poet uses analogies which are powerful and wide-ranging, yet do not have any personal element. In exemplifying what love is, he doesn’t talk about his feelings, or his personal experience. Instead, he gives us rather cosmic spatial and temporal analogies: love is like a star (probably the pole star) that guides people (who are like ships or “barks”) through the ‘hazardous seas of life’; love is not subject to Father Time or Death, but lasts to the “edge of Doom” (eternity in the Christian scheme of things). He avoids clichés such as ‘I will love you till the end of time.’ Instead, he links the figure of Father Time to the negative definition of love he started the poem with: old age and death may be ‘alterations’ or ‘removers’ (which cut down the “rosy lips and cheeks” of youth), yet he assures us that they have no effect on true, spiritual love.

Shakespeare’s sonnet is a strange one, for in it the poet declares his deep love in a language that at times borders on mathematics and cosmology. He refers to alteration, removal, proof, a fixed mark (which can be measured by sextants), and "the edge of Doom" (a temporal complement to the star whose “height be taken”). Shakespeare is of course making a general argument here, one that is far from the real-life context of Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, or The Taming of the Shrew, where characters have names and passions, families and frustrations.

In “Sonnet 116” Shakespeare gives a deep yet abstract definition of love. His message (true love overcomes all) and some of his phrases (such as “rosy lips and cheeks”) might be used by a lover, yet the language of the poem is most often logical, analogical, even mathematical. Indeed, Shakespeare’s rhetorical aim seems more argumentative than expressive or personal. It is certainly not the type of language you should use on a date! Imagine substituting You have such soft lips with I admire your pneumatic apertures. Or I will never stop loving you with Interest will accrue on our mutual satisfaction. If you make this sort of verbal miscalculation, you might then be left — alone — to calculate the water pressure of a cold shower.


Scratch Outline 

Sweet Words of Logic

Shakespeare’s sonnet is about true love, yet instead of using emotion or pathos to make his point, he uses logic and analogy.

1. The first stanza is like an argument a philosopher or lawyer might make, with its abstract and logical definitions of love. 

2. The poet uses analogies which are powerful and wide-ranging, yet do not have any personal element. 

3. Shakespeare declares his love in a language that at times borders on mathematics and cosmology.


Full Outline                                          

Sweet Words of Logic

Shakespeare’s sonnet is about true love, yet instead of using emotion or pathos to make his point, he uses logic and analogy.

The first stanza is like an argument a philosopher or lawyer might make, with its abstract and logical definitions of love. 

- use of abstract words in definitions

- use of logical argument structure:

- definitions <--> analogies <--> final proof or conclusion

The poet uses analogies which are powerful and wide-ranging, yet do not have any personal element. 

- spatial and temporal analogies: —star —eternity

- links between temporal analogy and opening definition

Shakespeare declares his love in a language that at times borders on mathematics and cosmology. 

- examples: fixed marks which can be measured by sextants; edges of Doom (a temporal complement to the star whose “height be taken”), removers, etc.

- general abstract argument; far from real-life context of Romeo and Juliet, etc.  (155 words)



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