W.H. Auden’s “Tell Me the Truth About Love” questions love and cites experiences the narrator has had with it. The poem is set up so that the second, fourth, sixth and seventh stanzas ask questions about love, while the other stanzas describe the narrator’s encounter with love.
The first, third, and fifth stanza describe how the narrator has encountered love. The first stanza shows words the narrator has heard other people use to describe words; the third stanza describes where he has found love in literature; and the fifth stanza names the places where the author looked for love. The word choice in these stanzas implies an immature tone and also hints that the narrator has no idea what love is. This is because he compares love to things people usually wouldn’t compare with love. For example, the narrator compares love to a little boy and a bird (lines 1-2). In the third stanza, the narrator explains how he’s seen love written on the back of railway-guides (23-4). Then, in the fifth stanza, the author explains how he couldn’t find love inside the summer-house (31-2) or underneath his bed (40). The unusual words he uses to describe his encounters with love make the narrator sound as if he’s a kid. This would make sense when implying that the author doesn’t understand love because it’s normal to believe that kids don’t understand it. The narrator’s confusion continues as he asks questions about love in the other stanzas.
It becomes evident that the author doesn’t know much about love in the second, fourth, sixth and seventh stanzas as he asks unusual questions about it. In the second stanza, he asks questions about love’s physical characteristics (such as its appearance, smell and feel). Instead of asking something cliché about love (such as if it’s as bright as the sun, feels like smooth velvet, and smells like honey) he asks if love “looks like a pair of pyjamas” (9), if it smells like llamas (11) and if it feels like a prickly hedge (13). The fourth stanza asks what love sounds like. Here, instead of asking if love sounds like a soft ballad, the narrator asks abnormal questions such as if it sounds like a hungry Alsatian and if booms like a military band (25-6). The sixth stanza asks what love can do to a person. The narrator asks if love can make a person greedy (45) and if it can make somebody make weird faces (41) instead of asking if love can make someone feel like everything in the world is okay. Lastly, in the last stanza, the narrator asks how he will know if love has arrived. He doesn’t refer to any goose bumps or butterflies in his stomach; as a substitute, he asks if it will be unexpected like him picking his nose (50) or if it will knock on the door in the morning (51). The unexpected words used in the questions the narrator has about love imply that he knows nothing about love. However, the author isn’t too ignorant. This is because at the end of each stanza described above, he asks the reader to tell him the truth about love, as if he had been told a lie about love. Or as if popular culture had distorted his view of love, or as if he questioned the idea of love even existing. In a similar way, in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” the narrator challenges the public’s view of love and compares it to what he feels and sees in his mistress.
Most of the poems and song lyrics that I have read have made efforts at describing love by comparing it to objects that people usually find extraordinary or beautiful. Some of the objects compared to love are: the sun, the color red and roses. In “Sonnet 130,” William Shakespeare decides to write a poem that at first glance resembles a letter about the author’s distaste towards his mistress. The most noticeable part of his poem is how he takes characteristics usually related to love’s, such as appearance, sound and smell, and uses them to describe his distaste for his lover. He vilifies her appearance by contrasting her eyes with the sun and the red of her lips with red coral. He finishes by commenting on how he dislikes her breath, her smell and her manner of walking. The images Shakespeare chooses to contradict his mistress are essential in the controversy of the existence of love because, as he admits in the last two lines, he thinks he loves his mistress, but he doesn’t really know how to explain his love. However, in the last two lines, the narrator admits that he has a strong emotional connection with his mistress. The line breaks and structure of each line of the sonnet also help the reader point out the traditional aspects of love that confuse the narrator when he compares them to his mistress.
The structure of the lines in “Sonnet 130” help bring out the aspects of love that the narrator questions. For example, the first four lines aren’t enjambed and clearly express the features of his love that are contrasted by others’ view of love. His mistress’ “eyes” aren’t as bright as the “sun” (line 1), her “lips” aren’t as “red” as they should be (2), her “breasts” aren’t perfect and “white” as snow (3), and instead of being silky, her “hair” is ugly like “black wires” (4). As the poem continues, it is separated into couplets: the first line (which is sometimes enjambed) describes an aspect of the narrator’s mistress that he expects to be pleasant based on the public’s view of love, and the second line portrays the reality of that characteristic in his mistress. For example, in lines 7-8, the narrator contrasts the pleasant scent of perfume to his mistress’ disgusting breath that “reeks.” The use of this couplet structure within the sonnet helps the reader realize the author’s confusion. From the last two lines, it can be inferred that the narrator has a strong emotional connection with his mistress. That being said, according to what others compare to love, the aspect in the first line should apply to his mistress. Unfortunately, the reality of that aspect is presented in the second line, and love’s not as extraordinary as it seems. It’s not understood and, even thought the narrator has strong emotions for his mistress, he can’t necessarily say he loves her if he doesn’t even know what love is. He’s putting all his emotion in a word that will hopefully explain everything he feels.
The public’s view on love is questioned and challenged in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” and Auden’s “Tell Me the Truth About Love.” The poems are similar in that the narrator doesn’t agree with what the public’s view of love. In Shakespeare’s poem, the narrator is a man who doesn’t believe that the unrealistic characteristics of love don’t apply to his mistress. Even though he has very strong feelings for her, he can’t apply the public’s view of love (which is supposed to be a word describing the highest level of affection towards another) to what he feels and sees in his mistress. On the other hand, the narrator in Auden’s poem is a child who doesn’t ignore the public’s view on love, but questions it. He questions the public’s take on love and desires to know the truth about love.
Both poems express the idea that love is different for everyone and that it isn’t clearly defined. Knowing this, ask yourself these questions: Is it possible to say that something exists if it can’t necessarily be defined clearly? Is it even possible to believe in that specific thing? Even if you say you feel it, how do you know if it’s really what you’re feeling when you don’t know what it is? Would you still agree with this way of thinking if the thing I was talking about was love? The truth is that love has evolved into too many identities to be defined as one thing for everyone. People have been so involved in defining every strong emotion they have that they forget to look back at the source of all that emotion. It would be a shame to ship away all the emotion you had for someone in a small four-letter word and expected it to mean something.
Auden, W.H. “Tell Me the Truth About Love.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed.
Ferguson, Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo, and Stallworthy, Jon. New York and London:
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005. 1470-1.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 130.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed. Ferguson,
Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo, and Stallworthy, Jon. New York and London: W.W. Norton
& Company, Inc., 2005. 267-8.