What is a love poem? Many believe that a love poem is supposed to be sweet and romantic. That is the basic tone of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “How Do I Love Thee?” However, William Shakespeare’s “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” takes a much different approach to the typical love poem. Both poems are noticeably love poems, but they respond to the ideal in different ways. Browning describes her love as enormous and wonderful, but it is somewhat too ideal, to the point of being unrealistic. However, Shakespeare’s description of his lover is not flattering, and occasionally insulting, yet much more realistic and therefore more ideal. The subjects and themes of the poems are very similar; however, the tone, voice and settings are quite opposite.
Browning’s description of the love she feels is portrayed as amazing, almost to the point of being unrealistic. She uses metaphors to show that her love is like a bird soaring into the heavens, powerful and unstoppable. However, it is also depicted as soft and gentle, which is shown by her reference to “candlelight”(line 6). When children love, they love with every part of themselves because they don’t understand what heartache feels like.
This pure and unquestionable form of love is what Browning’s referring to when she claims to love “with my childhood’s faith” (line 10). She also believes that her love cannot be stopped, even by death; which is evident in line 14 when she states “I shall but love thee better after death.” The tone of the poem is romantic, which is typical of a traditional love poem. However, her description of the love she feels is so articulate and sincere that the reader can almost feel her emotions. This sincerity is what has made Browning’s poem one of the greatest love poems ever written. Most people go through their entire lives only dreaming of feeling that kind of love and having someone love them to the extent of Browning’s poem.
Although Browning’s poem is a wonderful fantasy, the standard that it sets is too high for most people to reach. She doesn’t mention anything about what the relationship is like on a day to day basis, nor does she say anything about how her love feels about her. The poem could very well be written to someone who doesn’t return her feelings or it could even be written to someone that she doesn’t love in a romantic way. It all depends on how the reader interprets the poem. When viewed in this light, Browning’s traditional love poem is no longer traditional. It can even be seen as rather ridiculous, the belief that anything, even love, can be as perfect and complete as she describes.
Shakespeare’s poem is much more realistic and in many ways, sweeter and more romantic. The poem is intended to be a satire of the typical love poem, yet still depicts his love for his mistress. He basically states that she isn’t beautiful or charming, but he loves her still. Upon first reading this poem, one might think that Shakespeare is attempting to be cruel; however, his true intent is revealed in the last two lines when he states “I think my love as rare…As any she belied with false compare.”(lines 13-14) This is a much more understandable and acceptable approach to describing love. He is proving that a woman’s beauty, voice, and charm aren’t what make her worthy of being loved. He accepts that fact that many other men may not think much of his mistress, but that doesn’t concern him. He loves her for reasons that they probably wouldn’t understand. Most of the love sonnets written during Shakespeare’s time only describe the beauty of the poets’ lovers. He is attempting and succeeding in making these other poets seem superficial and foolish.
The woman being addressed in Shakespeare’s poem is in fact his lover, unlike Browning’s poem in which it is uncertain who she is speaking to. This is evident because he refers to her as his mistress, whereas Browning doesn’t actually address anyone. Also, when one loves someone from afar, his or her impression of that person is usually idealistic. Therefore, he wouldn’t refer to her in such a cynical form. He would probably believe that she is the most beautiful and charming woman he’s ever known. It is this realistic aspect that makes Shakespeare’s poem a much better love poem than that of Browning’s.
Although both are considered to be love poems, Shakespeare and Browning take two very different approaches to the idea of love. Browning’s poem depicts a more ideal love, the kind that most people strive for; however, Shakespeare’s poem describes a more realistic type of love, the kind that most people can achieve. Personally, I would prefer the love portrayed in Shakespeare’s sonnet because that is the kind of love that lasts. The type of love illustrated in Browning’s poem is often fleeting and unattainable.