“A Word We Use to Plug Holes With”: The Concept of Love in Poetry

By Julia Bifulco

The topic of love is ever-present in art, and despite how often we see it, we are always eager to revisit it. Throughout the centuries, however, the word ‘love’ has been used less and less sparingly. Instead of reserving it for the utmost special and overwhelming emotions, it is thrown at any feeling that slightly resembles joy, no matter how fleeting. Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare, written in 1609, presents a romantic interest with realistic qualities, and the speaker expresses how passionate his love for her is, while also spoofing the idealization of the beloved’s beauty in the earlier Italian sonnets of Petrarch. Margaret Atwood’s “Variations on the Word Love,” written in 1981, strips the word ‘love’ of the power it has over us, questioning the word’s ability to convey pure feelings of affection. Through an analysis of the development of the history of love poetry, as well as a close reading of Shakespeare’s sonnet and Atwood’s poem, I will argue that the concept of love does not have to represent an ideal sentiment, but rather something raw and real.

In thirteenth-century Sicily, Giacomo da Lentino was the first poet to write a sonnet (Rivers 42). The structure he used was fourteen lines that follow a specific rhyme scheme. The first eight, known as the octet, propose a question or an issue that is meant to be resolved by the final six lines, or sestet, of the poem. After the octet, a volta, or turn, signals a shift in tone for the final lines of the sonnet. Other early Italian sonneteers, such as Francesco Petrarca—more commonly known as Petrarch—wrote in the same fashion as da Lentino. Petrarch’s octets typically follow the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, while his sestets follow those of CDECDE or CDCCDC (Wilkins 197). He does not include rhyming couplets at the end of his sonnets, as later poets such as Shakespeare do, in order to avoid suggesting that both parts of the sonnet must logically fit within one another; instead, Petrarch suggests that two thought processes or feelings presented naturally go together (Storey 19).

Many of Petrarch’s sonnets are devoted to Laura, a woman whom he caught a glimpse of whilst in church and immediately fell in love with; she rejected his romantic advances because, according to Petrarch himself, she was married (Bates 91). This, however, did not stop him from engaging in a passionate love affair with his own idea of what Laura was like. Their relationship existed only within the sonneteer’s work, and although Petrarch did have two children, the woman (or women) who bore them are not mentioned in his writings, despite the evidence of their association to Petrarch (Abbott 319). His sonnets instead focus on the idealized form of Laura, whom he very briefly encountered.

 Laura is often referred to by scholars as “Petrarch’s imaginary beloved,” (Trapp 58) such as by J.B. Trapp in his article “Petrarch’s Laura: The Portraiture of an Imaginary Beloved.” Laura is only ever given a physical description in the sonnets; various traits such as her family name, where she lives, and her personality are not disclosed, making her a mere fragment of a person (Dubrow 19). Petrarch creates what he believes to be the ideal Renaissance woman, and his writings are a tribute to his overwhelming love for her. He picks qualities that he deems important and gives them to Laura in order to perfect her, thus perfecting his love. Due to Petrarch’s idealization of Laura, Petrarch’s love for her is romanticized as well. Future poets, such as Shakespeare, spoof this representation of love in their own romantic sonnets, while also paying their debts to their predecessors’ works.

Shakespeare wrote a total of 154 sonnets in his lifetime; they were all published together in 1609 (Garrigues 248). Similarly to traditional Petrarchan sonnets, Shakespearian, or English, sonnets are composed of fourteen lines. Unlike Petrarch, however, Shakespeare’s sonnets are divided into four quatrains and include a rhyming couplet at the end. The rhyme scheme Shakespeare uses is also different; his sonnets follow that of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (Garrigues 257). Both poets focus on the concept of love in their writings, as well as their or their speaker’s infatuation with their respective lovers. While Petrarch writes about an idealized form of Laura, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 presents a speaker that makes a point of expressing that he loves a real person with genuine human qualities, making his love for her more valuable.

According to philologist Oliver Farrar Emerson, Shakespeare bases the content of his sonnets on those of earlier English poets instead of Italian ones. He argues that “there is no reason to believe [Shakespeare] knew anything of Italian sonnet literature” (Emerson 119) given that it was not as accessible to him as English sonnets were. This statement, however, can be challenged when analyzing many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, namely, Sonnet 130, which parodies the idealization of the beloved found in Petrarchan sonnets.

Shakespearean sonnets typically “promote the status quo by celebrating the fair,” literary scholar Robert Matz explains (Matz 480), the ever-popular Sonnet 18 being an example of this. Sonnet 130, however, features the Dark Lady, a recurring character in Shakespeare’s sonnets who is often used to spoof what is typically praised in poetry. Sonnets 127 to 154 are known as the Dark Lady sequence; these are the sonnets that most strikingly parody conventional love sonnets, such as Petrarch’s (Bates 101). It is with Sonnet 130 that the speaker explicitly claims that his feelings of love are the truest, because they are for a real person, and not an idealized, false version of one.

 Using male lust as the lens through which he views his beloved, the speaker suggests that traditional beauty, as is explored in earlier love poetry, is unnecessary to provoke passionate and affectionate sentiments. The sonnet begins with “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;” (Shakespeare 1) the speaker uses the word ‘my’ here to emphasize that he, as a writer, is differentiating himself from most traditional love poets. He is referring to his own beloved, who will later be revealed to have very realistic qualities, instead of the romanticized traits that many earlier sonnets have been celebrated. The speaker also comments on his lover’s eyes to disallow the romanticization of them, contrasting what many earlier poets do when making reference to their beloved’s eyes. Eyes have often been romanticized in writing, and Shakespeare himself has played with this in his earlier work. In Sonnet 18, the speaker once again associates the sun with eyes. This poem is part of the Fair Youth sequence of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which primarily revolves around the speaker’s admiration for the Fair Youth himself. When dealing with love, this sequence’s point of view is in keeping with Petrarchan traditions. In the sonnet, the speaker declares that “sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines” (Shakespeare 5) in reference to the sun. The ferocity of the sun can be juxtaposed with the intensity of the speaker’s love. By immediately dismissing the possibility of beauty in his beloved’s eyes, the speaker in Sonnet 130 rejects a trope often used in romantic poetry, including in Shakespeare’s own work.

In Elizabethan England, the ideal woman had bright eyes, red lips, pale skin, blonde hair, and rosy cheeks (Tilley 208). All of these traits are explicitly removed from the image of the speaker’s beloved in Sonnet 130, emphasizing the unconventionality of her beauty with each line. In reference to his lover, the speaker remarks that “if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun” (Shakespeare 3). Having very pale skin was a sign of wealth and power in the Renaissance (Tilley 210). The speaker’s explanation regarding his beloved’s lack of this highly-regarded quality affirms that she truly is an average woman. The poem later affirms that his beloved is still deserving of love. She will not bring him money or ameliorate his social status, but the speaker loves her nonetheless, contrasting most earlier sonneteers’ perspectives on love (Dubrow 15). According to literary theorist Michael Bryson in his book Love and its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden, in his sonnets, Shakespeare presents “a love that is freely chosen, freely given, and freely received,” (Bryson 9) instead of something forced upon people by societal expectations and obligations. Despite his beloved’s inability to benefit him in these ways, and her physical traits that are not conventionally beautiful, the speaker expresses his love for her because he knows she is still deserving of it.

The speaker compares parts of his lover’s physical appearance with aspects of nature, explaining that she is unlike anything beautiful in nature. This rejects the popular idea that women are connected to nature, and that just as ‘Mother Nature’ is, they can be exploited for the benefit of man (Furlanetto 199). The speaker states that he has “seen roses” (Shakespeare 5) in his life, none of which are present “in her cheeks” (Shakespeare 6); this suggests that he has seen many submissive women in earlier poems, but does not see the same traits in his own lover. Poems that celebrate idealized versions of the beloved value qualities that benefit only the male speaker, such as Laura’s chastity or her image as a pure being in Petrarch’s works (Trapp 63). The speaker of Sonnet 130 does not love the subject of his poem because of trivialities such as these, but instead cherishes her in a more profound manner. He distinguishes his lover from the popular trope of associating women with natural phenomena, expressing that he does not see her as someone he has the power to dominate. This is yet another instance of the speaker separating his relationship with his beloved from others explored in earlier sonnets. He believes his love is more authentic than that of poets like Petrarch, who loved an ideal and not a real person.

A comparison can be drawn between the way in which the speaker of Sonnet 130 describes his beloved’s movements and Petrarch’s illustration of Laura’s movement in his Sonnet 90. The Shakespearean speaker clarifies that he “never saw a goddess go” (Shakespeare 11) when referring to his lover. In contrast, Petrarch’s speaker refers to his beloved as “a celestial spirit” (Petrarch 12), painting a beautiful, ideal picture of her. Shakespeare’s speaker emphasizes that the image of his mistress walking is not a pleasant sight, working against what a traditional love poem would propose, such as in Sonnet 90. He says that she “treads on the ground” (Shakespeare 12), which does not make her seem at all desirable. The speaker of Petrarch’s poem, however, refers to Laura as “angelic” (Petrarch 10), equating her to immortal, heavenly beings. The speaker of Sonnet 130 explicitly does the opposite of this in order to reinforce that not only does his beloved not fit the physical description for someone a poet would love, but her mannerisms, as well, are different from what is typically celebrated.  He argues that, despite this, she provokes what Petrarch would describe as “the lure of love” (Petrarch 7) just as well as an idealized version of a woman would.

The rhyming couplet at the end of Shakespeare’s poem reinforces the fact that the purpose of Sonnet 130 is not for the speaker to tell his beloved how much he loves her, but instead, to suggest that romanticizing one’s feelings of love is not genuine love. He believes his sentiments are more valuable than those of, for example, Petrarch: “I think my love as rare/As any she belied with false compare,” (Shakespeare 13-14) he states, placing more importance on his own love. The speaker does this to explain that, despite the aforementioned undesirable description he attributes to his lover, he is still capable of loving her, and that because of this, his love has more worth. Due to the fact that he rejects traditional tropes in love poetry when exploring his emotions, he believes his feelings are more powerful. He describes a true human with palpable qualities, making his love for her real, instead of something based on an idealization.

In her book Writing the Yugoslav Wars: Literature, Postmodernism, and the Ethics of Representation, professor Dragana Obradović defines postmodern art as “summarized through its features of ironic, self-reflexive playfulness, formal inventiveness, and heterogeneity of genres” (Obradović 20). Following the events of the Second World War, the postmodern literary movement was born. As is the norm with literary movements, it rebels against its predecessor, modernism. Sociologist and Holocaust survivor Theodor Adorno famously says “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz” (Adorno 15) in his book Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, because he was unsure if humans could or should produce anything beautiful after the atrocities of the Holocaust. Postmodern works share Adorno’s belief, and they reject the existence of an absolute truth and focus mainly on skepticism and irony[1]. Postmodern poets question themselves and their own work through their work, and Margaret Atwood is no exception to this.

Atwood has published 18 poetry collection books in her lifetime. The topics range from gender equality, climate justice, power dynamics, and, as is explored in her poem “Variations on the Word Love,” the power of words and language (Wood 30). This poem, published in 1981, is a companion poem to Atwood’s “Variation on the Word Sleep.” At first glance, it seems as though the speaker has a negative view of the concept of love, but Atwood herself has declared “I am not a pessimist” (Brans 304).

The speakers of Atwood’s love poems have been described by literary scholars, such as Gayle Wood in “On Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems,” as “full of fear. They are contemporary lovers, approach-avoidance lovers” (Wood 31). Atwood’s poetic speakers are often cautious when it comes to expressing their feelings of love, directly contrasting with Petrarch’s speakers in his sonnets. “Variations on the Word Love” is no different; this free-verse poem is divided into two stanzas that present different opinions regarding the expression of one’s love. 

The first stanza explores the popularization of public expressions of love, which devalues the word ‘love’ itself. The poem opens with a description: “this is a word we use to plug/holes with” (Atwood 1-2), implying that we use the word too often without thinking about it.  The word ‘love’ is supposed to describe the utmost special and overwhelming emotions, and the speaker is criticizing our throwaway use of the word. She mentions “those warm/blanks in speech” (Atwood 2-3), in reference to empty space in conversation that we often fill with “love you!” or a variation of that. Telling someone we love them has become a salutation rather than an intimate expression of our affection, as is further reinforced by using the word “vacancies”  (Atwood 4) to describe where we place our love. If we feel that a sentence is too empty, according to the speaker’s experiences, we will insert the word ‘love’ in order to fill it with meaning.

The speaker also comments on the commercialization of love and how it has seemingly become something that we can purchase. She criticizes the romanticized shapes of hearts, which “look nothing/like real hearts” (Atwood 4-5). Instead of using an image of the human heart, which would represent raw human emotion, the shape of hearts typically used to illustrate love are fluffy and unrealistic. The speaker reminds us that despite how powerful we consider the word ‘love’ to be, we “can sell/it,” (Atwood 6-7) as well as find it in “magazines,” (Atwood 11) and “cook with it” (Atwood 14). This word has become mundane and common, which reduces its value, despite the fact that it is meant to signify a powerful emotion. She asks how we, as humans, know that we are the ultimate definers of love, and that love is not what takes place “at the cool/debaucheries of slugs under damp/pieces of cardboard” (Atwood 14-16). The speaker implies that because these animals are not occupied with the image of their love, they are able to experience it to its fullest extent. “The Act of Love Poetry and Personality,” written by literary critic Hayden Carruth, describes the feeling of love as “a spiritual happening,” (Carruth 307) and the second stanza of Atwood’s poem further explores this by effectively contrasting with the first stanza. While the first stanza describes our conscious idea of love, the second one reminds us what our unconscious understanding of this feeling is.

It is in the final lines of the poem that the speaker acknowledges the relationship between herself and the reader; she refers to them as “the two/of us” (Atwood 21-22). She goes on to explain that, despite the aforementioned connotations of the word ‘love,’ it is “too sparse/to fill those deep bare/vacuums between the stars” (Atwood 24-26). Due to the love she shares with whomever the poem has been written for, the speaker is unable to find a concrete definition for it, and therefore leaves it up to the reader. What we do not want to fall into, she explains, is not love, but rather “that fear” (Atwood 29) associated with that which we do not know about love. Despite the previous criticism of our many conscious ideas of love, the speaker clarifies that the word is still “not enough” (Atwood 30) to describe the pure emotion we feel when we love someone. We fill numerous gaps in our lives with the word ‘love’ to temporarily solve any issues we see present, according to the first stanza, and yet, when the time comes to truly express our raw human sentiments, the speaker suggests that the word is inadequate. She describes the significance of the word as “a cliffside” (Atwood 36), something we have the choice to “hold on or let go” (Atwood 37) of. Ultimately, the speaker of Atwood’s poem suggests that, although we have so many ways to use the word ‘love,’ they are oftentimes trivial, so when we attempt to use it to describe our genuine feelings, it falls short.

The concept of love is an unwaveringly popular subject in poetry, and throughout the years, we have used the word ‘love’ more and more often, diminishing the power it once held. Some of the earliest love sonnets, written by Petrarch, are devoted to an idealization of the beloved, a trope that is spoofed by Shakespeare in Sonnet 130. Atwood’s poem “Variations on the Word Love” presents varying interpretations of the word, ultimately reducing its importance in our lives. Through an analysis of the history of love poetry, as well as a close reading of these poems, it is arguable that love does not have to represent an idealized feeling, as was the norm in most earlier poetry, but rather something real and human.

[1] Liana Bellon, Integrating Activity. Winter 2020.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Atwood, Margaret. “Variations On The Word Love”. Selected Poems II: Poems Selected & New 1976-1986. Oxford University Press Canada. 1986. Page 85.

Petrarca, Francesco. “Sonnet 90” The Worlds of Petrarch ed. Giuseppe Mazzotta. Duke University Press. 1993 Pages 60-61.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 18”. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Revised edition. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 2010. Page 147.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 130”. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Revised edition. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 2010. Page 375.

Secondary Sources

Adorno, Theodor W. Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, 3-18. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 1960.

Brans, Jo, and Margaret Atwood. “Using What You’re Given: An Interview with Margaret Atwood.” Southwest Review, vol. 68, no. 4, 1983, pp. 301–315.

Bryson, Michael and Arpi Movsesian. “Love and Authority: Love Poetry and Its Critics.” Love and Its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden. 1st ed., Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK, 2017, pp. 1–36.

Carruth, Hayden. “The Act of Love Poetry and Personality.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 84, no. 2, 1976, pp. 305–313.

Emerson, Oliver Farrar. “Shakespeare’s Sonneteering.” Studies in Philology, vol. 20, no. 2, 1923, pp. 111–136.

Matz, Robert. “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” ELH, vol. 77, no. 2, 2010, pp. 477–508.

Obradović, Dragana. “War, Postmodernism, and Literary Immanence.” Writing the Yugoslav Wars: Literature, Postmodernism, and the Ethics of Representation. University of Toronto Press, Toronto; Buffalo; London, 2016, pp. 20–36.

O’Connor, Brian. “Adorno on the Destruction of Memory.” Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates, edited by Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz, Fordham University Press, New York, 2010, pp. 136–149.

Trapp, J. B. “Petrarch’s Laura: The Portraiture of an Imaginary Beloved.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 64, 2001, pp. 55–192.

Wood, Gayle. “On Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems.” The American Poetry Review, vol. 8, no. 5, 1979, pp. 30–32. JSTOR.

Works Consulted

Abbott, Frank. “Petrarch’s Letters to Cicero.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 5, no. 3, 1897, pp. 319–327.

Bates, Ernest Sutherland. “The Sincerity of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Modern Philology, vol. 8, no. 1, 1910, pp. 87–106.

Dubrow, Heather. “Petrarchan Problematics: Tradition and the Individual Culture.” Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses. Cornell University Press, Ithaca; London, 1995, pp. 15–56.

Furlanetto, Elena and Peter Lang AG. “Ottoman Nature: Natural Imagery, Gardens, Wells, and Cultural Memory in Republican Turkey.” Towards Turkish American Literature: Narratives of Multiculturalism in Post-Imperial Turkey, Wien, 2017, pp. 199–252.

Garrigues, Gertrude. “Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 21, no. 3, 1887, pp. 241–258.

Rivers, Elias L. “Certain Formal Characteristics of the Primitive Love Sonnet.” Speculum, vol. 33, no. 1, 1958, pp. 42–55.

Storey, H. Wayne. “The Formation of Knowledge and Petrarch’s Books.” Petrarch and Boccaccio: The Unity of Knowledge in the Pre-Modern World, edited by Igor Candido, 1st ed., De Gruyter, Berlin; Boston, 2018, pp. 15–51.

Tilley, Morris P. “The ‘White Hand’ of Shakespeare’s Heroines.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 19, no. 2, 1911, pp. 207–212.

Wilkins, Ernest H. “Notes on Petrarch.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 32, no. 4, 1917, pp. 193–200.

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