In this paper, our task is to compare the works of such prominent English authors as Shakespeare, Milton and Keats. Overall, we can say that in their poems they explore themes, which have always been vital for any artist, namely, the fear of death, brevity of human life, love and most importantly art. These motifs can be traced in their sonnets. It is necessary to show how the poets approach these age-old questions.
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What are the similarities and differences between them? At this point, we may discuss one of the most famous of John Miltons sonnets When I consider how light is spent. This poem is saturated with the feeling of anxiety and uncertainty. Milton is attempting to understand whether his life and his poetic works were of any good to other people and most importantly to God. He says
“And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless.” (Milton, p 474)
Moreover, the poet emphasizes the importance of humility. In his opinion, this
is the only way to find eternal life and conquer death. For instance, in this line, he
explicitly states submission is the only path to salvation,
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done in as little as
“Who best bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best” (Milton, p 474)
Judging from this sonnet, one can conclude that at that moment this poem was written, Milton was immensely overwhelmed by the fear of his advanced age and oncoming demise, and in these lines he resorts to religion. To some degree, it is quite possible for us to draw parallels between this work and the sonnet by John Keats. In some way, they are very reminiscent to each other, because, Keats also appears to be overcome by suspense and anxiety. It can be observed even in the title When I have fears that I may cease to be. Both Milton and Keats describe the moments when a person realizes that death is inevitable. Almost everyone has to go through similar experience. Nevertheless, the representative of Romanticism focuses more on love and art without which even life is virtually senseless.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain (Keats, 503).
What frightens him most is the failure to create beauty, which is probably, the major goal of human existence. We should bear in mind that at the time this poem was composed Keats was only twenty three years old, and awareness of this fact only increases the impression, produced by these lines. We have paired the sonnets by Milton and Keats because both of them are dominated by the motifs of decline and fading. As regards, William Shakespeares Sonnet 18, we may say that he also explores the theme of dying. But there is a significant difference. From his standpoint, with the help art, love and memory, a human being can defeat death. In order to prove this argument, we should refer to his lines
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee (Shakespeare, 466)
Unlike Milton or Keats Shakespeare believes that an artist can immortalize other people. The famous playwright is firmly convinced that beauty can last for ever if it is captured by art. He distinguishes two dimensions of human existence: physical and spiritual. The first one is bound to perish and turn into ashes, whereas the second one will never cease to exist if it becomes a part of other peoples memory. Certainly, we have to admit that there is a similarity between these three sonnets, particularly, the theme of death, but the tone is different.. Milton is concerned with the outcomes of his life, and Gods attitude toward them. Keats explores the opportunities which a person can lose, while Shakespeare sets stress on the idea that art can escape aging and dying and consequently we can do it.
Janet E. Gardner, Jack Ridl, Beverly Lawn, Peter Schakel. “Literature: A Portable Anthology”. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.