Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

"Love Not" Explication

     (1)Love not! love not! ye hapless sons of clay,
          Hope’s gayest wreaths are made of earthly flowers:
          Things that are made to fade and fall away
          Ere they have blossomed for a few short hours. Love not! love not!
     (5)Love not! love not! the thing you love pray die,
          May perish from the gay and gladsome earth—
          The silent, stars. the blue and smiling sky,
          Beam on its grave, as once upon its birth. Love not! love not!
     (9)Love not! love not! The thing you love may change,
          The rosy lips may cease to smile on you;
          The kindly beaming, eye grow cold and strange,
          The heart still warmly beat yet not be true. Love not! love not!
     (13)Love not! love not! O warning vainly said:
          In present hours as in years gone by
          Love flings a halo round the dear one’s head,
          Faultless, immortal, till they change or die. Love not! love not!


In a tightly structured set of four quatrains, Caroline Norton’s poem “Love Not” speaks openly about how troubling love can be. Love’s ability to distort one’s perception of another person is dangerous, and as time moves forward these lofty perceptions will wear away and uncover a loved one’s darker character. Through a stable and consistent structure, the fluctuation between voiced and unvoiced consonance, and diction reflecting the beauty of nature, “Love Not” provides readers a warning against falling in love with another person. After all, “dear ones” are only ever temporarily lovable (Norton line 15).

The structure of “Love Not” gives the poem a stable, regimented tone, as if to reflect the narrator’s steadfastness and immobility—steadfastness because the narrator recognizes and warns against the deception of love, and immobility because the deception of love is cyclical and, at first, inescapable. The work is constructed in a set of four quatrains, or four stanzas that each have an ABAB rhyme scheme. This scheme sets up an expectation for the reader, as the final words in the first two lines in each stanza have a matching rhyme in the last two lines of each stanza. The result is that each stanza leaves a firm and memorable impression for the reader, so as to ensure a sense of memorability and connection with the strength of the narrator’s tone. For example, the end rhymes in the second stanza are “die,” “earth,” “sky,” and “birth,” all of which have a rhyming pair (5-8). The ABAB rhyme scheme allows the final words in each line to ring out, thus emphasizing their importance in the piece. These word choices will be discussed later, but in terms of structure the expectation for rhyme and consistent scheme give the poem a steady, anthem-like quality. It is not simply a product of the narrator’s stream of consciousness; rather, this structure makes the poem’s content feel calculated and factual, not spontaneous or sentimental.

In addition to the quatrain structure, the narrator also employs iambic pentameter to give “Love Not” regimented, songlike, and timeless qualities. An iamb is any poetic foot consisting of two syllables: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. For instance, “Love not! love not! The thing you love pray die” consists of five feet of iambs, or iambic pentameter, where each italicized word is stressed (5). Iambic pentameter gives the poem a repetitive beat, making its reading consistent from reader to reader. For this, “Love Not” feels universal, as if all people can relate to its message. It also resembles the meter of Shakespearean sonnets, many of which are love poems. For the sake of irony, the “Love Not” narrator uses this Shakespearean form to speak out about the dangers of love, so as to use the reader’s comfort with the meter to challenge more positive perceptions of falling in love. The exception to the poem’s iambic pentameter is the final line in each stanza, in which the narrator adds two extra “Love not! love not!” feet, giving the entire poem a total of four lines of iambic heptameter. These little breaks away from the regimented pentameter provide a sense of escape, especially when followed by lines commenting on the temporary nature of love, such as how it “blossom[s] for a few short hours. Love not! love not!” (4).

In terms of internal literary devices, “Love Not” fluctuates between unvoiced and voiced consonance, or the repetition of consonant sounds. This fluctuation reflects the push and pull between falling in love and the realization that infinite love for another person cannot exist. In other words, falling for somebody initially brings about feelings of sweetness, warmth, and lightness (as with unvoiced consonance). However, when his or her true, less desirable characteristics show, those initial feelings become sour and harsh (as with the repetition of voiced syllables). While unvoiced consonance yields soft, cushioned sound (as in the phrase “snowflakes on faces”), voiced consonance is more abrasive (as in the phrase “vexing devil”). Producing voiced consonance simply takes more energy and creates a sort of buzz reminiscent of an engine or a wasp. “Love Not” alternates between these two types of consonance in each of its stanzas. For example, lines 6 and 7 read “May perish from the gay and gladsome earth— / The silent, stars. the blue and smiling sky,” where the bold text indicates voiced consonance and the purple text indicates unvoiced consonance. The following line brings back the poem’s chorus “Love not! love not!” to perpetuate the pattern (8). Similarly, “The kindly beaming, eye grow cold and strange, / The heart still warmly beat yet not be true” exemplifies this pattern in the following stanza with voiced, harsh glottal sounds and skittish, unvoiced stops (11-12).  

Finally, the narrator’s diction in “Love Not” employs an array of natural, earthy language to juxtapose the open warnings against falling in love. This diction adorns the piece with words that relate to the beauty of nature to comment on how love entices individuals and how it stems from the superficial. For example, the narrator refers to readers as “hapless sons of clay,” comparing them to an earthly substance (1). Clay, however, can also describe something that changes easily or can that other individuals can mold to their liking, much as love does on the surface. Love brings about hope whose “wreaths are made of earthly flowers” which are “made to fade and fall away” (2-3). While this line describes the ephemeral nature of love’s effects, its use of flowery diction makes it seem harmless, much as love, too, initially seems harmless. Other examples of simple, pretty diction are words such as “rosy,” “smile,” “kindly,” “heart,” and “warmly” appearing in the third stanza (10-12). Although the narrator here describes the consequences of falling in love and how it may “cease to smile” become “cold and strange” and may “not be true,” the diction paints love in a more positive light (10-12).

All of this pretty diction, however, comes to a halt in line 15 when the narrator describes how love “flings a halo around the dear one’s head.” The word “flings” stands out not only because it is a common 21st century verb, but also because it connotes carelessness, haste, unnatural action, and mishandling. Upon reading this word, readers snap out of the picturesque world of ornate language and into the narrator’s final refusal of love. To end “Love Not” on this note is to punctuate its message of warning and leave readers feeling a sudden and unnatural shift in tone.

Through the impactful and songlike structure of four quatrains of iambic pentameter, the fluctuation between voiced and unvoiced consonance, and the use of flowery diction, “Love Not” impactfully sends its warning against falling in love. It depicts a world that is bound by the falsehood of love and how individuals can never truly attain it. By the use of lines in iambic heptameter and the sudden interruption by the word “flings,” the poem breaks away from this veil of untruth and reaches out to the reader to shake him or her out of love’s illusion. Love has a way of molding people like clay, and at the end of the day it is deceptive, only bringing about future turmoil in a relationship. Since the only way out of its deception is if the loved one “change[s] or die[s],” the narrator of Norton’s poem “Love Not” cautions against giving love a chance to begin with (16).

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