Wrestling with love–the falling, the feeling, and the losing–has probably sent more pens to paper than any other topic. With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, It’s the perfect time to spend half an hour of shivers, sighs, and tears to savor some of our great poems about Love. In this post I’ll share some of my favorites from different poets and eras that offer multiple perspectives on “la grande passion.” If, however, no lucky star presides over your love life right now, and Valentine’s Day finds you in no mood to celebrate, despair not. A couple of selections here may just suit your mood.
Quick Note: Apologies to Shakespeare lovers for not featuring any of his poems here, since of course he is one of the greatest writers ever about love. However, his poems are so well-known, I believe all lovers of love-verse can find them easily for themselves. Here I’ll focus on poems readers may not know about.
Married Love and Bradstreet’s Treasure
Going back to Puritan days in America, we come upon a beautiful expression of a woman’s love for her spouse, Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” (click to read) written between 1641-43. This simple yet thoughtful poem was a favorite of many of my students, perhaps for its testimony that love within marriage can endure:
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
Bradstreet’s tribute to her husband may sound conventional today, but in her day, it might have been a touch controversial. Actually, she is challenging Puritan theology in claiming that love between a husband and wife can be so pure that it will last beyond the grave and may even help lead the couple to eternal life.
Take a moment to enjoy this earnest loving poem, and possibly read the “Poem Guide” on the website by contemporary poet Emily Warn.
My Love and I are All the World
No love poems capture erotic intensity like those of seventeenth century poet John Donne. “The Sun Rising” (1633) celebrates those times spent with a lover when time is suspended and the two of you feel like the only beings in all the world.
In the poem, Donne begins by scolding the sun for breaking in on his night in bed with his beloved:
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
The speaker tells the sun to stop interrupting their night together, and instead to go wake up such folk as “Late school boys and sour prentices,” since “Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime, / Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.”
The poem ends with a lovely and extravagant claim to match the extravagance of the couple’s love for one another:
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
All the world (that matters, anyway) is present there in that room. Thus, the speaker poses that the sun has completed its job of lighting the whole world just in shining on the two of them: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.”
First Love at First Sight
Living in England from 1793- 1864, John Clare was known as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet.” Born into the working class, he started doing farm labor at age 7, but had a natural gift for poetry.
My heart went out to Clare’s poem “First Love” from the first time I read this poem about love, as the perfect and simple expression of what it feels like to fall in love at first sight. Here’s the first stanza:
I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.
I love the romantic country-ballad feeling of the last heartfelt lines of the poem:
I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling-place
And can return no more.
Turning from English back to American poets, we find two beautiful expressions of longing for a loved one who is not present. Emily Dickinson’s straightforward expression of desire in “Wild Nights!” may seem startling coming from a nineteenth century reclusive woman:
Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Dickinson was writing in the 1860s; moving forward to 1913 we come to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s wistful and beautiful “Invitation to Love,” in which he expresses that his loved one would be welcome to him at any time, season, or state of his mind. The poem begins by inviting his lover to appear during happy and beautiful times, and ends with this stanza saying she will be equally welcome at times of grief, or any other time:
Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd’ning cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.
For a poem about love with a little less sentiment, we can turn to Edna St. Vincent Millay, writer, poet, and poster girl for the thoroughly modern woman of the 1920s. In many of her poems, Millay claimed her right as a woman to the same sexual freedoms that men more often enjoyed, including the freedom of coupling without subsequent emotional entanglement.
In Sonnet XLI, she speaks to a one-time lover, saying although “distressed / By all the needs and notions of my kind . . . to feel a certain zest / To bear your body’s weight upon my breast,” the lover should not expect a relationship to develop afterwards: “[L]et me make it plain: I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again.”
Check out the whole poem known as “I being born a woman and distressed” here.
As we see from Millay’s example, not all poems about love would class this emotion as a tender or even welcome sentiment. Everybody wants and praises it; why then does love so often fall short of expectations? Fiercely modern woman and great wit Dorothy Parker chronicled all the things that can go wrong with love in the modern world, usually by making them funny.
In “Love Song,” Parker pokes fun at love. As do so many people in love, the speaker describes her loved one as a paragon. So why, even from the first stanza, does she wish she’d never seen the fellow?
My own dear love, he is strong and bold
And he cares not what comes after.
His words ring sweet as a chime of gold,
And his eyes are lit with laughter.
He is jubilant as a flag unfurled—
Oh, a girl, she’d not forget him.
My own dear love, he is all my world,—
And I wish I’d never met him.
Her loathing only gets more intense from here. Read the poem and enjoy.
W. H. Auden
In W. H. Auden’s “The More Loving One,” (1957) we find somewhat more serious perspective on imperfect love than Parker’s. In this poem, Auden’s speaker seems to assume that love can rarely, if ever, be equal between partners. Given that, he chooses to be the more loving one of a pair, rather than be on the receiving end of a passion he can’t return:
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
He compares the object of his loving admiration to a shining star, which has the regrettable quality of not caring a straw for him. Knowing the stars don’t care, he claims he could get used to doing without them, though “this might take me a little time.” This poem seems to model self-sufficiency in love, despite heartbreak or loss, which is not depicted as a great tragedy, but more as the common condition of human life.
For the Unlucky in Love
For the best, most poignant, wry, gentle, and charming lament about unlucky love, I turn not to a poet but to a team of songwriters, George and Ira Gershwin and their incomparable ballad “But Not for Me.”
You can read the lyrics of “But Not for Me” here, including these great lines:
With love to lead the way
I found more clouds of gray
Than any Russian play
But don’t just read the lyrics when you can listen to any of several great singers render this song with tender melody and winsome regret.
Two of my current favorite recordings are these:
A Valentine Wish
Whether the star presiding over your love life right now is lucky or unlucky, whether you view love as the most desirable emotion, a human inconvenience, or life’s greatest tragedy, I hope you will celebrate Valentine’s Day, or any day, by indulging in some great poetry about love.
Reading great classic literature makes everything we experience as human, both the good and the ill, so much better.
Edna St. Vincent Millay. By Arnold Genthe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.