Comparison Essay – ‘What Thing is Love?’ vs ‘Sonnet 11’ (Wroth)

Finished! I find myself getting feeling really guilty when I don’t immediately address something that someone has said would be useful for the site to have. Silly really as I am making about £5 a month at the moment, just covering my hosting costs!

Anyway, my essay with accompanying notes. I don’t proclaim it to be the best thing ever written, but this is the way I express my ideas and feel it is the easiest way to address a comparison and handle it well. It is guiding your reader through the poem, but stopping to point out all the major sites along the way:

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Compare how two poems from your selection present the theme of love.

The great thing about comparison questions

‘What Thing is Love?’ and ‘Sonnet 11’ are both poems that focus on the importance of love and its impact on the individual. At first read it seems that both poems are largely negative about the emotion, but on deeper analysis it is clear that Peele acknowledges the good and bad together, while Wroth is consumed with anger and bitterness toward the emotion.

Where to start?

Peele’s poem is a nostalgic trip back through his experiences of love. He opens with a question that guides the rest of the poem. Love is variously described in negative and positive terms to show the dual power of the emotion. Peele suggests it is a ‘prick’ and a ‘sting’, both of which have connotations of intense pain, something deep and, in the case of the sting, a lingering sensation. However, both these words also make me think that love is not a matter of life and death as neither of these words describe something that is going to kill someone, but a short term, intense pain.

How to organise analysis?

These words are contrasted immediately as he also calls love a ‘pretty, pretty thing’. The repetition emphasises the positivity here and almost suggest he is lingering on a particular example or memory of a lovely memory of a relationship or emotion. However, this is the only comment in the whole poem that is clearly positive. Further comparison with ‘fire’ and ‘coal’ give dual connotations that suggest the two sides of love. We can relate ‘fire’ to extremely negative aspects of love such as getting burnt and inherent danger, but also to positive aspects such as warmth, comfort, romance and security. Similarly, ‘coal’ clearly relates to being cold, hard, black and may suggest emotionless, but it is also the fuel of life and leads to all the positive aspects listed above. The fact that it ‘creeps into every hole’ at first appears to be another negative as it is almost like love secretly consumes and takes over an individual, but this is also testimony to the power of the emotion and how deep its impact can feel.

Notice the detail

Peele seems to blame women for the emotion by claiming it comes ‘from ladies’ eyes’ like ‘piercing darts’. We could read this as being misogynistic given the negative connotations of the emotion outlined in the poem, but everything about this poem suggests that the poet is ambivalent about the emotion: he appreciates the good and the bad at once. The regularity of the rhyme scheme and the heavy use of punctuation and caesura throughout the poem slow the pace and suggest that the speaker is not coming from a position of high emotion, but is relaxed and appreciative.

Wroth, on the other hand, appears to present an entirely disparaging view of love. The poem curses the emotion as it associates love with her ‘endless torment’, which conjured an image of the poetic voice being tortured by her feelings. The rhetorical questions that follow highlight her belief that the emotion is cruel as it ‘delights’ in her suffering and misery and have left her with a feeling of hopelessness. She makes the extent of her suffering clear when she suggests she cannot live with the shame or feeling of mockery, which she describes as ‘disdain’, that love has generated causing her to question ‘Shall I still live’.

Where's the comparison?

Her mood in the poem seems to swerve as it continues. The first quatrain shows her desperate state, but the second is a plea for support. The word ‘alas’ at the opening of the quatrain shows that she is making a desperate appeal at the death kneel of this relationship and this is for her lover or love ‘to stay’ with her, but this is presented as not being the result of the strength of her love, but rather as a necessary kindness to end the tremendous pain she is suffering from as a result of this romantic trauma. Just as in ‘What Thing is Love?’ she mentions the ‘sharp[ness]’ of her pain making it sudden and intense and she intensifies it even further by accompanying it with ‘distress’ showing that she is completely lost and in panic at love’s absence. The intensity of the pain she associates with her heartache should serve to demonstrate to the reader that Wroth also acknowledges the tremendous power of the emotion for making her feel good as well as its devastating power to destroy her; if love had not gripped her quite so completely it would be impossible for her to respond in such an abject manner.

Comparison?

If the second quatrain demonstrated her desire for pity, the third shows her mood now being bitter and aggressive. She threatens the ‘honoured title’ of our personification of love with revealing to the world that Love is at fault for her distress. This threat is clearly empty, but again demonstrates the mixed emotions associated with heartache, swaying from pure misery, to pity and now to anger surging through her. Wroth use of punctuation in the different quatrains supports this creation of different moods within the poem. We began with fairly quick fire questioning showing her desperation, but these give way to caesura punctuated lines in the second quatrain that slow the pace of the poem down and give a more melancholy and pleading tone. In the final quatrain the first and the last two lines use enjambment as she almost spits out her bitter, angry and fruitless threat towards Love.

However, the most dramatic mood is demonstrated in the final couplet of the sonnet where Wroth once again makes a veiled threat to take her own life to end the pain. The lingering final line ‘lest help do come too late’ implies that without help she will commit suicide and the couplet begs someone to come and sooth her before this point. Who exactly she is appealing to is open to debate: she could be still addressing Love and asking for it to end the agony of her heartache; alternatively it could be an appeal directly to the lover in question; or, indeed, it could be an appeal directly to the reader to offer her comfort and support to help her deal with this suffering. Personally I think that this is deliberately ambiguous as she is in a state of utter despair and wants anyone to help her, but it is particularly effective if the reader/listener feels a responsibility for her at this point.

In one important respect these two poems agree about love: it has the power to wound, but also is intensely powerful and positive as well. However, this is where the agreement ends as Peele treats love nostalgically as something that is ultimately not that important as he is able to discuss its impact calmly and merrily even when discussing the times it has led to suffering or pain in his life. Wroth, on the other hand, is in the grips of current and raw emotion related to romantic trauma and as such is unable to see through her current suffering and put things in perspective. Her hyperbolic response to her misery and thoughts of suicide suggests she is in the grips of the intense or ‘sharp’ pain that both Peele and Wroth describe.

How to end

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

5 thoughts on “Comparison Essay – ‘What Thing is Love?’ vs ‘Sonnet 11’ (Wroth)”

  1. I’m a private self-studying student wondering, if it is possible to write and include everything within an hour.

    1. What do you mean, everything? You can’t talk about every aspect of your poems, but should try to focus on the most significant points with regards to answering the question. Hope that helps.

  2. I liked his subtle way of comparing. He doesn’t use an overwhelmingly obvious transition for the comparisons. Instead it’s just there as a way to k eep his writing fluid, not choppy. When going through the poem the writer should follow a certain order. If the writer starts bouncing all over the place and using random quotes and examples the reader will be thrown off. However, by guiding the reader through the poem in a more chronological fashion and using quotes in their respective order they can keep up with the writer.

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