By Conrad Geller

Well, here I am again, unbowed by the heartfelt, sometimes urgent suggestions for altering my recent “10 Greatest Poems about Death.” This time I choose a topic—love—less grim if equally compelling. And like death, love seems to be something most poets know little about; for evidence, see their biographies. The poems I have chosen this time cover the full spectrum of responses to love, from joy to anguish, and sometimes a mixture of both. As befits the topic this time, the list is a bit heavy on Romantics and light on those rational Enlightenment types. Here, with a few comments and no apologies, is the list:

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10. “Since There’s No Help,” by Michael Drayton (1563-1631)

It may be a bad augury to begin with a poem by a loser, but there it is. Drayton, a contemporary and possible acquaintance of the Bard, evidently had come to the unhappy end of an affair when he penned this sonnet.  He begins with a show of stoic indifference: “. . . you get no more of me,” but that can’t last. In the last six lines he shows his true feelings with a series of personifications of the dying figures of Love, Passion, Faith, and Innocence, which he pleads can be saved from their fate by the lady’s kindness.

 

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Michael Drayton

Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart
That thus so cleanly I myself can free;
Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou mightst him yet recover.

 

9. “How Do I Love Thee,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

If poetry, as Wordsworth asserted, is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” this sonnet scores high in the former essential but falls short of the latter. Elizabeth may have been the original arts groupie, whose passion for the famous poet Robert Browning seems to have known  no limits and recognized no excesses. She loves she says “with my childhood’s faith,” her beloved now holding the place of her “lost saints.” No wonder this poem, whatever its hyperbole, has long been a favorite of adolescent girls and matrons who remember what it was like.

 

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

 

8. “Love’s Philosophy,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

In spite of its title, this very sweet sixteen-line poem has nothing to do with philosophy, as far as I can see. Instead, it promulgates one of the oldest arguments of a swain to a maid: “All the world is in intimate contact – water, wind, mountains, moonbeams, even flowers. What about you?” Since “Nothing in the world is single,” he says with multiple examples, “What is all this sweet work worth / If thou kiss not me?” Interestingly, the lover’s proof of the “law divine” of mingling delicately omits any reference to animals and their mingling behavior. In any case, I hope it worked for him.

 

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Percy Bysshe Shelley

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—

See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

 

7. “Love,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Here we have another bold attempt at seduction, this one much longer and more complicated than Shelley’s. In this poem, the lover is attempting to gain his desire by appealing to the tender emotions of his object. He sings her a song about the days of chivalry, in which a knight saved a lady from an “outrage worst than death” (whatever that is), is wounded and eventually dies in her arms. The poet’s beloved, on hearing the story, is deeply moved to tears and, to make the story not as long as the original, succumbs.

As with his most famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge employs the oldest of English forms, the ballad stanza, but here he uses a lengthened second line. Coleridge, by the way, could really tell a romantic story, whatever his ulterior motives.

 

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame.

Oft in my waking dreams do I
Live o’er again that happy hour,
When midway on the mount I lay,
Beside the ruined tower.

The moonshine, stealing o’er the scene
Had blended with the lights of eve;
And she was there, my hope, my joy,
My own dear Genevieve!

She leant against the arméd man,
The statue of the arméd knight;
She stood and listened to my lay,
Amid the lingering light.

Few sorrows hath she of her own,
My hope! my joy! my Genevieve!
She loves me best, whene’er I sing
The songs that make her grieve.

I played a soft and doleful air,
I sang an old and moving story—
An old rude song, that suited well
That ruin wild and hoary.

She listened with a flitting blush,
With downcast eyes and modest grace;
For well she knew, I could not choose
But gaze upon her face.

I told her of the Knight that wore
Upon his shield a burning brand;
And that for ten long years he wooed
The Lady of the Land.

I told her how he pined: and ah!
The deep, the low, the pleading tone
With which I sang another’s love,
Interpreted my own.

She listened with a flitting blush,
With downcast eyes, and modest grace;
And she forgave me, that I gazed
Too fondly on her face!

But when I told the cruel scorn
That crazed that bold and lovely Knight,
And that he crossed the mountain-woods,
Nor rested day nor night;

That sometimes from the savage den,
And sometimes from the darksome shade,
And sometimes starting up at once
In green and sunny glade,—

There came and looked him in the face
An angel beautiful and bright;
And that he knew it was a Fiend,
This miserable Knight!

And that unknowing what he did,
He leaped amid a murderous band,
And saved from outrage worse than death
The Lady of the Land!

And how she wept, and clasped his knees;
And how she tended him in vain—
And ever strove to expiate
The scorn that crazed his brain;—

And that she nursed him in a cave;
And how his madness went away,
When on the yellow forest-leaves
A dying man he lay;—

His dying words—but when I reached
That tenderest strain of all the ditty,
My faultering voice and pausing harp
Disturbed her soul with pity!

All impulses of soul and sense
Had thrilled my guileless Genevieve;
The music and the doleful tale,
The rich and balmy eve;

And hopes, and fears that kindle hope,
An undistinguishable throng,
And gentle wishes long subdued,
Subdued and cherished long!

She wept with pity and delight,
She blushed with love, and virgin-shame;
And like the murmur of a dream,
I heard her breathe my name.

Her bosom heaved—she stepped aside,
As conscious of my look she stepped—
Then suddenly, with timorous eye
She fled to me and wept.

She half enclosed me with her arms,
She pressed me with a meek embrace;
And bending back her head, looked up,
And gazed upon my face.

‘Twas partly love, and partly fear,
And partly ’twas a bashful art,
That I might rather feel, than see,
The swelling of her heart.

I calmed her fears, and she was calm,
And told her love with virgin pride;
And so I won my Genevieve,
My bright and beauteous Bride.

 

6.  “A Red, Red Rose,” by Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Burns’ best-known poem besides “Auld Lang Syne” is a simple declaration of feeling. “How beautiful and delightful is my love,” he says. “You are so lovely, in fact, that I will love you to the end of time. And even though we are parting now, I will return, no matter what.” All this is expressed in a breathtaking excess of metaphor: “And I will love thee still, my dear, / Till a’ the seas gang dry.” This poem has no peer as a simple cry of a young man who knows no boundaries.

burns

Robert Burns

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.

 

5. “Annabell Lee,” by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Poe shows off his amazing talent in the manipulation of language sounds here, perhaps his best-known poem after “The Raven.” It’s a festival of auditory effects, with a delightful mixture of anapests and iambs, internal rhymes, repetitions, assonances. The story itself is a Poe favorite, the tragic death of a beautiful, loved girl, died after her “high-born kinsman” separated her from the lover.

 

Edgar_Allan_Poe_by_Samuel_S_Osgood,_1845

Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Laughed loud at her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went laughing at her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the laughter in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

 

4. “Whoso List to Hunt,” by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

Supposedly written about Anne Boleyn, wife of King Henry VIII, this bitter poem compares his beloved to a deer fleeing before an exhausted hunter, who finally gives up the chase, because, as he says, “in a net I seek to hold the wind.” Besides, he reflects, she is the king’s property, and forbidden anyway. The bitterness comes mainly in the first line: “I know where there is a female deer, if anyone wants to go after her.” Some of the tougher vocabulary is translated below. As the history goes, she could not produce the male heir Henry wanted and he (probably) wrongfully accused her of incest and adultery just so he could have her executed. This love, hijacked by higher forces, painfully elusive, and wildly tempting is exquisitely real and compelling.

 

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Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”

Whoso list: whoever wants
Hind: Female deer
Noli me tangere: “Don’t touch me”

 

3.  “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

Yet another seduction attempt in verse, perhaps this poem doesn’t belong on a list like this, since it isn’t about love at all. The lover is trying to convince a reluctant (‘coy”) lady to accede to his importuning, not by a sad story, as in the Coleridge poem, or by an appeal to nature, as in Shelley, but by a formal argument: Sexuality ends with death, which is inevitable, so what are you saving it for?

. . . then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.

and it ends with the pointed suggestion,

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.

This is one of the ten best poems in the English language, so I’ll include it here, whether it can be strictly pinned down with a label like love or death or not.

 

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/16/Andrew_Marvell.jpg

Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

 

2. “Bright Star,” by John Keats (1795-1821)

Keats brings an almost overwhelming sensuality to this sonnet. Surprisingly, the first eight lines are not about love or even human life; Keats looks at a personified star (Venus? But it’s not steadfast. The North Star? It’s steadfast but not particularly bright.) Whatever star it may be, the sestet finds the lover “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,” where he plans to stay forever, or at least until death. Somehow, the surprising juxtaposition of the wide view of earth as seen from the heavens and the intimate picture of the lovers works to invest the scene of dalliance with a cosmic importance. John Donne sometimes accomplished this same effect, though none of his poems made my final cut.

 

John_Keats_by_William_Hilton

John Keats

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

 

1. “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” (Sonnet 116), by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

This poem is not a personal appeal but a universal definition of love, which the poet defines as constant and unchangeable in the face of any circumstances. It is like the North Star, he says, which, even if we don’t know anything else about it, we know where it is, and that’s all we need. Even death cannot lord itself over love, which persists to the end of time itself. The final couplet strongly reaffirms his commitment:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The problem is that if Shakespeare is right about love’s constancy, then none of the other poems in this list would have been written, or else they’re not really about love. It seems Shakespeare may be talking about a deeper layer of love, transcending sensual attraction and intimacy, something more akin to compassion or benevolence for your fellow man. In this revelation of the nature of such a force, from which common love is derived, lies Shakespeare’s genius.

Image result for william shakespeare portrait

The Bard (William Shakespeare)

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

 

Post your own best love poem pick or list in the comments section below.

 

Conrad Geller is an old, mostly formalist poet, a Bostonian now living in Northern Virginia. His work has appeared widely in print and electronically.

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10 Responses

  1. Robert Cooperman

    I like the Wyatt, but no “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”? No “I Knew a a Woman” (“I knew a woman lovely in her bones…” by Theodore Roethke? None of Swift’s great birthday poems to Stella? None of Hardy’s guilt and grief stricken poems after his first wife died?

    And again with the Poe? Please!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Give him some slack Robert! It’s always tricky with top 10s and what you miss out. For me one of the greatest love poets of all is WB Yeats – so I could have said, What, no Yeats??? But hey – some good stuff here. And sometimes the sentimental can top even the brilliant. And by the way, love your mention of Burns’ John Anderson, my Jo – there’s a wonderful sung version of this by Eddi Reader, a superb Scottish singer on her album of Burns’ poems only – a masterpiece – called Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns. You’ll love it!

      Reply
  2. Robert Cooperman

    P.S. If you’re going to pick a Burns poem, “John Anderson, My Jo,” the unexpurgated version is far superior and deals with the whole heartbreak of old age and impotency, though the one you have is pretty nice too.

    Reply
  3. Alan W. Jankowski

    Interesting choices, and of course there’s always going to be some debate when the word “Greatest” gets applied to anything, especially poetry…

    Reply
  4. G. M. H. Thompson

    It’s too bad that this list is resticted to pre-1900, because most (well, actually all, if I were perfectly honest, which of course, I am not) of my favorite love poems were written after 1954.

    Reply
  5. Mahathi

    We crave for it, when young, in rage.
    Scared of it, when wise, to divulge.
    Love, the undeterring vice of any age
    underlines our life at every stage!

    What an onus laden on man
    Since the “Adam”antine sin?!
    Is it a curse or a boon?
    He delivered to the whole clan!

    At dawn fills your bosom to the brims of thrills.
    But anon, drills your heart to a well of tears!
    Culprit the love…the Cupid’s scourge…
    always difficult to interpret it’s maze!

    Reply
  6. Satyananda Sarangi

    It’s a wonderful list to make one’s weekend. The essay included some of my personal favourite love poems.
    Further, I would recommend some more from my own list.
    1. Love Me Little, Love Me Long by Robert Herrick
    2. Love and Age by Thomas Love Peacock
    3. The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe
    4. A Song of a Young Lady to her Ancient Lover by John Wilmot
    5. ‘The Sorrow of Love’ by W. B. Yeats
    6. ‘A Valediction- Forbidding Mourning’ by John Donne

    Reply
  7. Tod Benjamin

    I have read with interest and growing concern, firstly, the list of ten poems, then the list of comments and replies.
    How can lovers of poetry even consider a list that does not include the greatest love poet of all, John Donne.
    For example, The Good-Morrow:
    ‘I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
    Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then?
    But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
    Or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den?
    ‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
    If ever any beauty I did see
    Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.’

    Or, The Extasy:
    ‘Where, like a pillow on a bed,
    A pregnant bank swelled up, to rest
    The violet’s reclining head,
    Sat we two, one another’s best.’

    And if we don’t stop at love poetry, simply seeking ‘The Greatest’, then remember, all contributors, the same poet wrote:
    ‘No man is an Island, entire of itself.’
    And, of course:
    ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
    And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’

    Reply

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