Analyzing the Theme of Love across the Medieval and Renaissance

Love is a predominant theme in different kinds of art including poetry. It is a central aspect in human life as people strive to find or give love. In treating the theme of love, different poets have attempted to balance between carnal and spiritual aspects of love. Love has been a major theme in poetry since the medieval time, renaissance and 19th century up to the 20th centuries. Christopher Marlowe’s the passionate shepherd to his love poem, which creates an ideal image of emotions in rural context.

An example of medieval period poem that addresses love is John Donne’s Holy Sonnet. William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a classic example of a renaissance poem that addresses the theme of love. The love theme in 19th century period, which is popularly termed as the romantic era is exemplified by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Medieval Period

During the medieval period, poetry existed in form of lyrics/songs or sonnets. Lyrics were short poems to expressing the feelings and emotions of the poet. Donne is one of the major lyric poets of the time. The sonnet was also a popular poetry style during the 16th century poetry. As opposed to lyrics, sonnets are usually shorter and have a characteristic rhyme scheme, which changes depending on the form of poetry. Jon Donne’s love poems mostly fall under sonnets and songs.

Love was the predominant issue in Donne’s life. According to Bennett (1973), love was the major issue in his mind, the heart’s preoccupation and the main subject in John Donne’s poetry. In his preoccupation with love themes, Donne sought to understand and experience affection in both the theoretical and the practical sense. As stated by Joan Bennett (1973), Donne’s poetry is the product of a person who has tasted the fruits of love. John Donne presents personal experiences and imaginations about carnal and sacred feelings.

Imagery and Language

The most dominant characteristic of John Donne’s love poems is the use of petrarchan imagery and language. In this case, the poet uses certain expressions like “deaths for love” and “miraculous ladies” among others (Bennett, 1973). Donne uses different motifs to construct the petrarchan imagery in his love poems. The first is the element of scorn, which describes the disregard of the beloved for the other party as well as the reactions of the aggrieved party to the actions of them. This element also captures the idea of the lover’s imminent death

This element also captures the idea of the lover’s imminent death incase love is not given back. Another element in Donne’s romantic songs is the lover’s despair and grief after the death of the beloved. Further, Donne uses the approach of self-deception in which the sweethearts have a false idea that love is perfect example of human love.

Love Poetry

Christopher Marlowe’s the passionate shepherd to his poem, exemplifies the 16th century love poetry. It is a pastoral poem, which creates an ideal image of emotions in rural context (Leiter, 1966). It was written in a tetrameter style in which each line has four connotations. The poet delights in the natural beauty of rural setting by pleading with his partner to join him in the simple rural life (Leiter, 1966). The first stanza in the poem depicts the shepherd requesting his passion to accompany him giving it a sentimental touch.

This is illustrated by the use of the words “pleasures prove” in the second line of the first stanza (Leiter, 1966). By adopting an early reference to the aspect of pleasure, the poet offers a naive sexual tone to the poem. Further, the poet makes a gentle appeal. The poet seems to imply that the countryside will add the pleasure to the two.

Rural Paradise

Though the pleasures of the rural life are highlighted in the poem, the poet and the audience appear to be dignified. The rural paradise is presented as a fantasy in which the shepherd is a mere poetic device (Leiter, 1966). The poem uses objects like myrtle and roses and plants to symbolize the traditional expressions of love. For instance, the rose is recognized as a sacred symbol of the goddess Venus. The myrtle was also associated with Venus goddess (Leiter, 1966).

However, it was used as a symbol of virginity or sexual purity during the ancient Rome and in the modern era. In this poem, the myrtle is not a mere garment but a nuptial enticement by the shepherd to the lover. The shepherd’s image as a gentle but romantic personality is clear towards the end of the poem. “The shepherd swains shall dance and sing/for thy delight each May-morning.” In this line, the shepherd’s love advances are portrayed as passive.


Marlowe seems to believe that his readers would be delighted to discover and reconstruct the significance of the mythology. It emerges as a fragmented mythology, which serves to eliminate the barrier between the activities of man and the gods (Leiter, 1966). The first stanza prepares the reader for a detailed ritual that transforms the mistress. It turns her into a celebrated deity in the last stanza (Leiter, 1966). The shepherd appeals to the lover “come live with me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove.”

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is an example of love in renaissance period poetry. In the sonnet, the poet makes a comparison of the speaker’s lover to other beautiful women. The poet uses different images to compare the physical attributes of the lover to what he views as true beauty. For instance, the poet writes in reference to the lover, her eyes are not comparable to the sun, “her lips are less red than coral. Compared to white snow, her breasts are dun-colored, and her hairs are like black wires on her head. “ (Gerber, 1961). Further, the speaker contrasts the lover’s beauty with the beauty of roses, which is separated by different colors.


The writer implies that his lover does not possess the perfect beauty as symbolized by the beautiful roses and other objects. However, the writer admits his love for her lover’s musical voice. This aspect is used to portray the uniqueness of her lover. This is illustrated by the description of the lover as a rare and valuable goddess. The false comparison is invoked to describe the unique beauty of the love.

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