The universal conceptualisation of love is a subject of many a poet and writer throughout history. As such, each is relevant to their specific periods and their specific value systems. This can be seen in the text; “Sonnets from the Portuguese” by Elizabeth Barret Browning, where Browning explores a Romantic vision of love and romance through the abandonment of the Petrachan sonnet from. Likewise, the text “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, explores the turmoils of love in the 1920’s; a world obsessed with materialism and hedonism. Thus through the ways in which each author produces a narrative relevant to the values and contexts of their particular contemporaries we are able to discern how the theme of the transformative power of love and spirituality continues to be avid topics of literature today.
In Sonnet 1, Browning conveys the Romantic idea of love and spirituality against the prudish rationalism of the Victorian era. Her Greco-allusion “How Theocractes had sung…” references the 3rd century BC Greek pastoral poet – mourning the lost ‘art’ of renaissance passion. The aural metaphor reflects how poetry as “a craft,” had been lost – the past tense reinforcing that love as spiritual and not materialistic is neglected by Victorian culture. This is echoed in the lines: “of the sweet years, the dear and wished for years”, in which Browning utilizes assonance to accentuate the repetition of “years”; rhymed in the line, “through my tears” to emphasize the Victorian’s shifting focus of love to a convention of marriage that relies upon dowries and status. The enjambment, “who by turns had flung / A shadow across me” is a metaphor illustrating her isolation and sadness in this context – the literal shadow cast by Browning “across” her is a simulacrum of Victorian conservatism. Her subversion of the petrachan form is evident as the Volta is linked and the Iambic pentameter has been broken; conveying the challenge expressed by Browning toward the rationality of the Victorian mindset and her embrace of the Romantic idealism of love and spirituality, as Browning has progressed from a solipsistic interest in grief and isolation to an affirmation of love, firmly grounded in reality.
In contrast F Scott Fitzgerald reflects the roaring 20’s distillation of love into pragmatism and materialism, forsaking traditional romanticisms such as spirituality and hope. Juxtaposed against the Victorian suppression of passion, the wildly liberalized and sexually expressive twenties are expressed by Fitzgerald to be detrimental to the development of love. “Chatter… laughter… innuendo…meetings between women who never knew each others names,” in which Nick’s observations become anecdotes of accepted social behaviour. Exemplars such as “Jordan was going to yield him up her person sooner or later” illustrates the same loss of the universal language of love that Browning laments for the Victorian, as hyper-sexualisation of relationships erode spiritual values of love. This awkward inability to understand love for its own sake can be observed in Nick’s indecisive tone “I wasn’t actually in love but I felt a sort of tender curiosity,” and his mechanical metaphor of his own emotions and passions, “But I am… full of interior rules that acts as breaks.” The contextual idea that love and hope are no longer associated with romantic relations is lastly compounded in his admission that “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” Illustration that even stripped of pretence and lust, he is unable to interpret love as anything other than hedonism.
Browning reflects her strict Victorian patriarchal context through her exploration of the transformative power of love. Sonnet 14 is a subversion of the petrachan sonnets; conveying her assertive role in marriage. “For these things in themselves, beloved, may/ be changed, or change…” Here the persona challenges the petrachan tradition, which confronts the traditional conventions of Victorian women through the repetitive “I love her for her smile…her look…her way of speaking gently ”, mocking gender expectations of womanly behaviour. The repetitive juxtaposition in “changed, or change…”, and the anadiplosis in “love so wrought /May be unwrought so”, highlights how easily love may come undone when it is based on transient qualities – by literally attaching prefixes to devotional connotations. The imperative tone of command delivered in “neither love me for thine own pity wiping my cheeks dry.” This paradox of “neither” suggests her rejection of the feminine role of women. Her dismissal of the ephemeral attractions of the physical is not only a rejection of Victorian female stereotypes, but also a statement to the transformative power of true love.
In comparison to Browning, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby explores the lack of the transformative power of love in prohibition America and the need for society to adopt moral values. The “Jazz Age’ see women as sexual beings and mainstreamed the idea that repression was self-destructive. This sexual liberation is personified in Jordan Baker; whose androgyny and lifestyle is summed up by her symbolic name as two automobiles. She is a dichotomy of the 20s, the freedom and destruction afforded by a period of rapid industrialization. Jordan is the antithesis to Browning, whose deliberate vocabulary seeks happiness within a restrictive setting – she is instead careless, selfish, and immoral. Nick describes her self-serving pragmatism “too wise to carry well forgotten dreams from age to age…” This indicates a lack of hope and spirituality in her philosophy of life, which is emphasized through the repetitive “age”. The foreboding tone created through the assonance in “turned abruptly away and ran up the porch stairs…” illustrates her selfishness towards a Nick who cannot satisfy her own need for careless happiness. Thus Jordan embodies the egocentric love feared by Browning – a love lacking all transformative power and instead focuses solely on self-pleasure.
Thus through the analysis of poetic and narrative techniques we are able to see how both author’s are engaged by and through the worlds in which their narrative is produced as a result of their context and values.