Academic Lovers as Poets: Who Makes the Grade?

In Love’s Labor’s Lost, our four male protagonists begin the play swearing to spend the next three years in academic study.  Within hours, they have forsworn that oath, and have picked up pens to swear their loves to the members of the newly arrived French party.  Let’s takes the men in their initial roles as students, and grade them in their next roles as poets.


We hear Berowne’s sonnet first, as read by Nathaniel in Act Four, Scene Two:

If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?
Ah, never faith could hold if not to beauty vowed!
Though to myself forsworn, to thee I'll faithful prove:
Those thoughts to me were oaks, to thee like osiers bowed.
Study his bias leaves and makes his book thine eyes,
Where all those pleasures live that art would comprehend.
If knowledge be the mark, to know thee shall suffice:
Well learned is that tongue that well can thee commend.
All ignorant that soul that sees thee without wonder;
Which is to me some praise, that I thy parts admire.
Thy eye Jove's lightning bears, thy voice his dreadful thunder,
Which not to anger bent, is music and sweet fire.
Celestial as thou art, O, pardon, love, this wrong,
That sings heaven's praise with such an earthly tongue!

— IV.ii.104-117

As a love poem, it takes an interesting approach: while the tone is playful, its language is philosophical, filled with metaphors, the concepts of knowledge and learning, of Jove and heaven.  Following the typical Elizabethan sonnet’s rhyme scheme (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), the first quatrain notes his realization of the dilemma (“how shall I swear to love?”); he knows that he will only swear to beauty, and he also knows that his swearing to such would be sturdy “oaks” (though to her must seem “like osiers bowed” [note that in his mind the comparison is the stronger metaphor, while he knows that in hers it would be the weaker simile]). In the second quatrain, however, his metaphor becomes somewhat derailed. He begins talking about the “leaves” of the trees, and–too quickly and without much segue–switches from leaves on a tree to leaves or pages in a “book”… the book of her “eyes,” a book which holds “pleasures… that art would comprehend.”  For him, knowledge comes from her since simply “know(ing her)” shall be enough knowledge.  In the third quatrain, he begins to discuss the parts of her he “admire(s)”: her eyes and her voice (comparing them to Jove’s lightning and thunder).  This leads to his conclusion: that she is heavenly (like Jove), and he seeks her pardon for singing her praise with “an earthly tongue.”

The meter is interesting: instead of being iambic pentameter, the lines are each a foot longer, hexameter.  This longer meter makes each line feel longer (between the rhymes), and makes the poem feel less regular and flowing that it would regularly.  But that longer line, too, adds to the philosophical feel of the poem.  It is a good poem (though not nearly as good as the one that is embedded in his speech to his comrades back in Act One).

I’d grade it a C (it loses points for being too philosophical, not enough about love; and the longer meter doesn’t help it); it’s an especially disappointing grade for such a renown word-smith. ( Interestingly, Holofernes doesn’t grade it highly, either: “Here are only numbers ratified; but, for the elegancy, facility, and golden cadence of poesy, caret” [IV.ii.119-121]; he likes the mechanics [the “numbers”], but everything else misses the mark.)

King Ferdinand

The King, overheard by Berowne, reads his sonnet aloud in the next scene:

So sweet a kiss the golden sun gives not
To those fresh morning drops upon the rose,
As thy eye-beams, when their fresh rays have smote
The night of dew that on my cheeks down flows.
Nor shines the silver moon one half so bright
Through the transparent bosom of the deep
As doth thy face through tears of mine give light.
Thou shinest in every tear that I do weep.
No drop but as a coach doth carry thee;
So ridest thou triumphing in my woe.
Do but behold the tears that swell in me,
And they thy glory through my grief will show.
But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep.
O queen of queens! how far dost thou excel
No thought can think, nor tongue of mortal tell!

— IV.iii.23-38

Unlike Berowne’s, the King’s sonnet does conform the usual convention of iambic pentameter; however, his structure is altered, giving us a 16 (rather than a 14) -line poem, in a ABAB CDCD EFEF GG HH rhyme scheme.  The first quatrain instantly sets up the main image of the poem: the King’s tears of a lover’s woe.  He instantly compares her to the sun, though the real sun does not give “so sweet a kiss” on the morning dew on the roses, as her eyes do on the tears flowing down his cheeks.  The second quatrain goes from the sun to the moon, saying that she is also better than the moon because she always shines “in every tear” he weeps.  The “in” preposition is continued in the third quatrain, as the tears are “coach(es)” in which she rides, “triumphing in (his) woe.”

that’s a pretty cruel, almost masochistic, image… it is supposed to foreshadow the mock-fest in Act Five, Scene Two?

He claims that if she would just look at his tears, they would show her own glory in his grief.  The penultimate couplet (enjambed) implores her not to “love (her)self” because that will mean that she will keep his tears as a mirror and keep him crying.  It’s a weak (conceptually jumbled) ending for a sonnet, and it’s as if he realizes this, so he gives us the final couplet, calling her the Queen of Queens, and telling her that she is so wonderful that no thought can encompass it, nor any mouth speak of it.  While that’s a better ending to a love sonnet, it really doesn’t follow the preceding 14 lines.

I’d have to give Ferdinand a B-… it flows better (the regular iambic pentameter lines), but the jumbled concepts in the third quatrain (the coach of tears) and the bad then good (but not-so-good) couplets at the end definitely hurt the poem as a whole.


Next we hear Longaville reading his sonnet (a poem that he himself feels “lack[s] power to move” his love):

Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye,
'Gainst whom the world cannot hold argument,
Persuade my heart to this false perjury?
Vows for thee broke deserve not punishment.
A woman I forswore; but I will prove,
Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee.
My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love;
Thy grace being gain'd cures all disgrace in me.
Vows are but breath, and breath a vapor is:
Then thou, fair sun, which on my earth dost shine,
Exhalest this vapour-vow; in thee it is.
If broken then, it is no fault of mine;
If by me broke, what fool is not so wise
To lose an oath to win a paradise?

— IV.iii.56-69

Longaville approaches his poem like a legal proceeding: the first quatrain is his opening argument, in which he even uses words like rhetoric, argument, perjury and punishment.  He knows that he will be accused of breaking his vow to study, so he confronts the matter directly:  he only broke the vow because of her eye, against which even the world cannot argue.  And thus he doesn’t deserve punishment.  In the second quatrain, he presents his thesis: he foreswore women, but his love is a goddess; his “vow was earthly” but she is a “heavenly love”; if she forgives him, then it “cures all disgrace” in him.  In the third quatrain, he presents another reason he shouldn’t be blamed: a technicality.  A vow is, he claims, “a breath, and breath a vapor.”  And she is the “fair sun” which can “exhalest” (or “evaporate” [(Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0])]), so if the vow is broken, “it is no fault of (his).”  He concludes in the final couplet that even if he broke the vow, only a fool would not break a vow to “win a paradise,” the paradise of her love.

It’s a solid argument, well-crafted within the usual constraints of the sonnet form (correct rhyme scheme, solid iambic pentameter).  It has a nice mix of flattery and humor.  Despite Longaville’s own self-criticism, I’d give it an A.


The final poet we hear from is Dumaine:

On a day--alack the day!--
Love, whose month is ever May,
Spied a blossom passing fair
Playing in the wanton air.
Through the velvet leaves the wind,
All unseen, can passage find;
That the lover, sick to death,
Wish himself the heaven's breath.
'Air,' quoth he, 'thy cheeks may blow;
Air, would I might triumph so,
But, alack, my hand is sworn
Ne'er to pluck thee from thy thorn.
Vow, alack, for youth unmeet,
Youth so apt to pluck a sweet!
Do not call it sin in me,
That I am forsworn for thee,
Thou for whom Jove would swear
Juno but an Ethiope were;
And deny himself for Jove,
Turning mortal for thy love.'


Twenty lines, ten rhyming couplets.  All written in a thumpingly regular four-beat line (three trochees followed by a stressed syllable).  Filled with “alack”s and convoluted but not well-connected imagery (Love spies a flower, the wind can go through the petals, but the lover wants love’s breath?  Jove denying himself for himself?).  This poem is a sing-songy mess of doggerel.  Son, we need a rewrite; without the revision, I’d be forced to give the poem an F.

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