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Both Rich and Shakespeare address the theme of true love in their respective poems Living in Sin and Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds. The subject matter of both poems deals with the nature of true love, various implications of which are explored by each poet. However, similarity in theme does not guarantee in any way agreement in treatment; it can be argued that both poems take opposite or paradoxical views of the same concept. While Shakespeare portrays his view of the ideal love with great conviction, Rich in a seemingly careless series of disjointed images represents a realistic depiction of the situation of two lovers. Put simply, or even simplistically, it may be argued that Shakespeare takes the Romantic view of love while Rich takes the Realistic one. A closer examination of both poems will help in the understanding of how each treats and represents the theme of true love.
It is interesting to note the Christian allusions pertaining to marriage in both poems. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, he says, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments”, bringing clearly to mind the traditional Christian wedding ceremony in which those who do admit impediments are asked to “speak now or forever hold your peace”. Rich titles her poem suggestively “Living in Sin” which superficially points to adultery in the context of Christian matrimonial tenets but could very well represent the sin of staying in a marriage or commitment that is loveless or unsatisfactory. This is just one of the ways in which the poems may be contrasted in the way that they treat the theme of love.
Another interesting manner in which they may be seen are how they are formed and structured. Shakespeare’s version of ideal love follows the native form of the iambic pentameter and his typical rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. Rich, on the other hand, uses free verse to show the striking imagery that makes up “living in sin” —
“Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
The panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
A piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
Stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
Had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
Under the milkman’s tramp; that morning light
So coldly would delineate the scraps
Of last night’s cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
That on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
A pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own –
Eenvoy from some village in the moldings…”
The tightly regimented focus of ideal love in Shakespeare’s sonnet gives way to the disillusion and ambiguity of the reality of love in Rich’s verse. In keeping with this, the poets have contrasting tones as well. Rich is an omniscient narrator who while delving into the uncertainties and pain in the woman’s mind is still separate from the woman and thus a more reliable representative of her experience of real love – although unhappy, by evening the inconsistent and most likely, insecure woman is “she was back in love again, though not so wholly but…”
Shakespeare is a resolute and so sure of his view of true love, that he goes so far as to proclaim — “If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” In saying so he is effectively negating the possibility of any disagreement, as of course it cannot be disproved that he did write and that men have indeed loved through the ages.
In the realms of reality, there is no one truth, the woman may be in love one moment and out of it the next; disillusioned one moment and in denial in the next, and she may also be struggling to make sense of the difficult reconciliation of her expectations from her relationship and what she is getting in reality. Rich’s tone reflects this uncertainty very well. By the same premise, in the ideal world objective reality makes all truth knowable, therefore, Shakespeare paints a picture of true love that he can be so confident about because it is only the kind of love that he describes that he will accept as true love. Let us note that is it the marriage of “true minds” that he is focusing on, i.e. Love that extends beyond the physical and sensual world. Indeed, the woman’s falling in and out of love is something that in Shakespeare’s book would never qualify as true love, as he says:
“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”
However, as we read Rich’s poem, we do know that the feeling being described here cannot be disqualified as being untrue to the spirit of true love. As the woman in the poem is “jeered by her minor demons” the audience may be able to identify a certain sense of familiarity in the woman’s pain and insecurity in the relationship with her lover and/or husband.
Both poems are greatly effective in their own way, and by their form and content, present their respective poet’s idea of true love faithfully and convincingly. The polestar in Shakespeare’s sonnet is challenged by the grimy surroundings and indifferent partner in Rich’s poem, even as the fickleness of the woman’s feelings are countered by the timelessness of Shakespeare’s vision. In their own ways, both poems depict certain aspects of a vastly debated, elusive and enigmatic single explanation of the phenomenon of human bonds and what we like to call “true love”.
In a sense, both poems deal with the expectations from true love, whether they are fulfilled or not. For example, in Rich’s poem she says, “She had thought the studio would keep itself; no dust upon the furniture of love.” This represents the woman’s frustration at the living situation, a practical reality which inevitably interferes in the lovers’ experience of true love. An unclean apartment is hardly the “edge of doom”, which the ideal love of Shakespeare’s sonnet would endure and bypass, however, in Rich’s poem it is enough to cause cracks to appear in the “furniture of love”. With the hints of frustration that could even be of a sexual nature — “pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found a towel to dust the table-top, and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.” one finds a great contrast to Shakespeare’s vision of love that “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come;” where even the onset of age and the loss of physical beauty (and its implied sexual allure) does not lesson the power and surge of true love.
In the end, it is up to the reader to decide which poet they agree more with; whether they feel that true love is untouched by the rigors and hardships of daily existence or an eternal and timeless feeling that bypasses everything, including the mortality of specific lovers. They may also decide if it is possible that true love changes even as time passes due to inevitable external factors or if it is something that should never alter in order to qualify as real and relevant. It is useful to remember in the quest for the relevance of each perspective that they also represent not only individual people’s concepts of an already difficult problem, but also that they stand for entire ages and cultures and are inevitably affected by the social, political and historical contexts of the poets that wrote them.
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