Since the wonders of social media, the internet, and instant messaging are fairly recent inventions, individuals during the nineteenth century entertained themselves in other ways—poetry taking predominance. As writing offered a way of expressing one’s emotions, many individuals conveyed their feelings in the form of love poems; from affectionate love ballads to somber, heart-wrenching verses, poets and angsty teenagers have always shared many words on the matter. In Charles Swain’s ballad “I Will Tell Thee What It Is To Love,” the speaker of Swain’s poem recounts his first memories of love. This heart-warming piece highlights many of the perpetual feelings that stay with someone for the rest of his/her life. As the work focuses on the overwhelming emotions that surround young love, the speaker analogizes those pure feelings to nature’s organic beauty; the poem’s unique structure, compassionate diction, and thoughtful imagery all collaborate to form this idea of love’s immaculateness. Through the medium of the speaker, Swain conveys the impactful yet ephemeral nature of young love.
One of the aspects that contributes to the overall amorous tone of the piece is the speaker’s word choice. Throughout the poem, the speaker only shares positive thoughts on the subject. He reiterates the word “love” frequently to reinforce the idea of purity and happiness; as a matter of fact, when the speaker ponders the idea of love, he claims that he “will tell thee what it is to love!” (1). Following the caesura formed by the question mark after “Love?” the speaker affirms his knowledge of the matter and spends the remainder of the piece meditating on the idea of romance. Through Swain’s deliberative diction, the speaker dramatizes that being in love is like being in Heaven; for instance, the speaker notes that to love is “to build with human thoughts a shrine,” suggesting that love itself is holy (2). As shrines were mostly created with the intent of honoring worthy people, the speaker further emphasizes his unconditional support and admiration for his beloved. The speaker then notes how the immense emotions associated with love overwhelm the mind and enrapture every aspect of life. Continuing the worshipful, affectionate tone from before, the speaker claims that when one is in love,
Time seems young, and Life a thing divine.
All tastes, all pleasures, all desires combine
To consecrate this sanctuary of bliss (4-6)
The speaker seems to argue that the sensation of love is so overpowering that it captivates every part of the body and mind. Through the anaphora of the repeated “all” in line 5, the speaker emphasizes love’s sensation, and with the word comprising nearly half the line itself, the audience is drawn to believe him because he reaffirms himself consistently. The religious allusions seem to persist as the act of consecration is noted; to consecrate something is to make it sacred—matrimony is one of the sacraments in Christianity. Therefore, the speaker seems to argue that through the act of marriage, one could stay in love’s eternal bliss. To solidify the claim even more, the speaker asserts that “if there’s heaven on earth, that heaven is surely [being in love]” (9).
The allusions, both religious and natural, continue through the rest of the piece, reiterating the beautiful, immaculate depiction of love and its effects; Swain, through the speaker, takes advantage of the the technique of anthropomorphizing nature especially. The speaker speaks of “winds [that] sighed soft around the mountain’s brow,” as well as many other ornate illustrations to increase the intimate relationship between nature and the audience (17). During the nineteenth century, romanticism and nature often intertwined in poetry to create an everlasting feeling that stayed with the audience; the speaker’s appreciation and reverence for nature in “I Will Tell Thee What It Is To Love” directly highlights Swain’s attempt to endear nature to his readers, as well as give character to natural acts. By likening nature’s beauty to the innocence of young love, the speaker encourages the audience to recognize the significance of both subjects.
Through the use of religious language in the poem, Swain, through the speaker, appeals to the majority of his readers at the time. Many people wanted to read and write things that were familiar and comfortable to them, and as Christianity dominated the United States as the most practiced religion at the time, religion became interlaced with poetry. The inclusions of these ecclesiastic references in the poem plays an important role as it reasserts the ideology of liberal Christianity, creating a sense of community between the author and the audience. It gives the audience reassurance that they understand the message at which the author is trying to get. By consistently repeating phrases such as “immortal glory,” the speaker is allowing the audience to fully understand the paradise that love can house (11). This plays a particularly powerful function in the last line of the poem as the speaker concludes that his first feeling of love was “rapture then which is but a memory now!” The rapture, in Christianity, is the idea that one day Jesus Christ will return to Earth, and all the good Christians will follow Him back to Heaven; the speaker equates that kind of ethereal happiness to young love and seems to reminisce.
The overall affectionate tone of the poem can be largely attributed to the structure of the poem itself. It is comprised of two Spenserian stanzas: each stanza encompasses nine lines, with the first eight lines in iambic pentameter trailed by a single alexandrine line in iambic hexameter, and altogether the rhyme scheme formed is ABABBCBCC DEDEEFEFF. The Spenserian stanzas convey the dominance of lyrical form during this time period, and also offer the love ballad a rhythm pattern that would match its warmhearted tone. In addition, Swain, through use of the speaker, takes advantage of the form by asking “Love?” on the first line in the first stanza, then spending the rest of the stanza defining the term (1). He then employs the same technique by reaffirming himself at the beginning of the second stanza by stating “Yes, this is love,” claiming he has defined the term correctly and continuing to describe it for the remainder of the poem (10). Nearly all the lines end in true rhyme which gives a very romantic feel to the subject, and with the repetition of words with very positive connotations, like “sweets” and “sweetest” in the same line, the poem reaffirms its compassionate tone (13).
Young love, being something as pure and sweet as it is, can feel indescribable, yet the speaker seems to articulate the emotions perfectly. Through the medium of the speaker, Swain portrays the impactful yet ethereal nature of young love.