What Thing is Love?

 Overview

Well, the good news (if you’re not a poetry lover as of yet) is this is a particularly compact poem. Although it has been edited down by the editors of Songs of Ourselves (see below if you’re interested).

It’s also quite an easy one to grasp. The poetic voice, which I take to be Peele’s own voice, is pondering the nature of love. It focuses on the oxymoronic associations of beauty/joy and pain/misery.

What thing is love? – for sure love is a thing.
It is a prick, it is a sting,
It is a pretty, pretty thing;
It is a fire, it is a coal,
Whose flame creeps in at every hole;
And, as my wit doth best devise,
Love’s dwelling is in ladies’ eyes,
From whence do glance love’s piercing darts,
That make such holes into our hearts.

by George Peele (1556-96)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureToneAdditional Part of the Poem

Context

Not a great deal particularly relevant to the poem, but there’s maybe one thing you could potentially weave into your analysis.

Peele lived between 1556-96 and was more famous as a dramatist/playwright than as a poet and is widely believed to have written some work originally credited to Shakespeare (apparently he almost certainly wrote Act I and II of Titus Andronicus). Interesting? No, nor is it relevant.

However, by all accounts Peele was quite an interesting character. He led a reckless life, where he managed to squander the wealth he acquired through a good marriage, somehow always managing to be in need of cash and eventually ending up with nothing – dying in poverty. I always associate recklessness with living for the day/spur of the moment and I certainly detect that attitude in this poem.

 

Themes

Love – the beauty, Love – the misery, Love – the God. I’ve already mentioned that this is a reflection upon love as an emotion and what it does to individuals; on the one side, love is ‘pretty’, and on the other, darker side, which has a ‘sting’. Overall though, it is an appreciation of how powerful Love is.

Content

As it is so short, we’ll go through this one line by line.

It opens with a rhetorical question that sets the tone for the poem. The rest of the poem is the poetic voice trying to answer this question for his audience. The remaining part of this line confirms that the ponderer considers love to be important and a tangible ‘thing’.

Immediately following this, lines 2-3, he draws love’s two contrasting elements. First it is a ‘prick’, a ‘sting’, suggesting dangers and that love can be painful, but immediately countered with ‘It is a pretty, pretty thing’, which shows the poetic voice still appreciates its beauty in spite of the risk of danger.

Line 4 is probably my favourite in the poem. There are so many connotations or ‘fire’ and ‘coal’, some which fit neatly with our standard conception of love and others that are really not. If love is ‘fire’ then it is hot, exciting, sexy, warm, beautiful, but is also dangerous, unpredictable, scolding. Coal could suggest love is the fuel of life, it is sustaining, it is solid, but I think it has more powerful negative connotations of darkness, hardness and coldness. The following line compliments this by emphasising that love ‘creeps into every hole’, so effects every part of you, which obviously suggests it is extremely powerful and leaves the afflicted severely exposed should it turn from good to bad.

The poetic voice uses the final 4 lines to explain where he thinks love comes from. When he says it is ‘dwelling… in ladies’ eyes’ he doesn’t mean that women are the afflicted, but he suggests that the glance of a beautiful woman is enough to make him fall in love. He refers to these glances as ‘piercing darts’ that ‘make such holes into our hearts’ that again rekindles this idea of the power that love has to inflict pain, severe pain (imagine having a dart thrown at you – sharp) and potentially overwhelming (the heart being a fairly important organ).

 

Language and techniques

I’ve already covered a fair amount while discussing the content and the key thing to talk about when analysing this is the contrasting connotations of the language used. Almost all of the poem is figurative with the audience expected to look deeper into the words chosen to find meaning.

‘Prick’ and ‘sting’ immediately suggest love’s ability to inflict pain, although both these seem to indicate short, sharp pain rather than anything truly devastating. The poetic voice never commits himself to portraying love as a negative thing, so does not really lament or moan about the type of pain love causes.

If you don’t mention ‘fire’ and ‘coal’ and the fact it ‘creeps in at every hole’ then you’re not doing the poem justice. The two sided meaning of these words sums up the whole poem and the following line shows us how exposed and vulnerable love makes its victims.

I feel like I’ve covered ‘piercing darts’ and breaking lovers’ heart, but maybe we should look at why he says love lives in ‘ladies’ eyes’. You can either view this as flattering: the poetic voice acknowledging the power and beauty of women and the effect they can have on him; or as quite insulting: heart break and love sickness is all women’s fault. I’d take the prior view, but then I don’t have much sympathy for feminist or Marxist reconstruction of literature from a different time with different values. Whatever you believe, it lets us know this conception of love is entirely from a male perspective.

The other thing worth mentioning is the use of personification. You all know who Cupid is, but you may not be aware that he is sometimes simply referred to as Love. He has a ‘dwelling’ and possesses ‘piercing darts’. In this section of the poem he seems to be a two sided trickster, who we acknowledge creates something ‘pretty’, but also seems to enjoy inflicting pain.

In the additional part of this poem, Love is acknowledged formally as ‘a great and mighty lord’, but this contrary nature is still present as Love is associated with Mars (Roman Goddess of War) and the two of them play ‘even and odd’, which means firstly that love and war are connected and that they can, either individually or together, cause confusion and pain for men.

 

Structure

First thing to mention is the fact that this is all one stanza. Why? Well, the whole poem is like one continuous thought, the poetic voice exploring his own feelings about love.

You can almost see the lines of the evolution of his thoughts. He starts by suggesting a few things love is similar to, but then refines it with the more fully explored idea of love as ‘fire’ and ‘coal’.

The rhyming structure helps reflect the tone. After an opening rhyming triplet, the poem is structured as rhyming couplets, which, accompanied by an abundance of punctuation (particularly with the enjambment of the opening 4 lines) gives it a slow,  gentle and regular rhythm and tone when read allowed.

 

Tone

Although the poem deals with both positive and negative aspects of love, it is clearly quite calm. This is not someone lamenting or praising a specific love affair, but rather someone wistfully reflecting back on their experiences of love – acknowledging the bad, but more focused on appreciating the power and magnificence of love.

Additional Part of the Poem

(not included in Songs of Ourselves version)

And all the world herein accord,
Love is a great and mighty lord;
And when he lists to mount so high,
And evermore hath been a god,
Since Mars and she played even and odd.
 

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.

12 thoughts on “What Thing is Love?”

  1. This site is a saviour. Well-organised. Easy to read. Includes all the poems I’ve been studying. Just fantastic. Can’t thank you enough.

  2. you’ve done a very good job.. this is the best english literature site ive seen so far.. its explains pretty much everything.. thank you.. <3

  3. Im taking English Language and Literature this coming october and i have to say this is the best site to get an overall understanding of the poems.

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