Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

How to write a love poem, let me count the ways

Traditionally, a love poem is addressed to the object of the poet’s love.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Literary scholars argue over the various objects of Shakespeare’s love, the Mistress and the Friend, the Dark Lady and Mr W.H. Some however argue that Shakespeare’s real object was to make a name for himself as a poet, which at the time could not be achieved without writing a sonnet sequence.

Other Elizabethan poets made up names for their poetic mistresses. Sir Philip Sidney’s was Stella, Michael Drayton’s Phoebe, Samuel Daniel’s Delia. Sidney gave himself a made-up name too. He was Astrophel. Shakespeare preferred anonymity for all but himself.

Elizabethan sonnet sequences were like Cicely’s diary in The Importance of Being Earnest, which she said was, “Simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.”

Love poems of this traditional kind were memorably satirised by Adrian Mitchell (1932-2008) in his poem, Celia, Celia.

When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on

Perhaps the first to react against the conventional love sonnet was Shakespeare’s near contemporary, John Donne. The Indifferent is addressed to women in general and celebrates the unfaithfulness of both sexes.

I can love her, and her, and you and you,
I can love any, so she be not true.

Donne was the poet of promiscuity. In Break of Day, he assumes the part of the female half of a one-night stand.

‘Tis true, ’tis day; what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise, because ’tis light?
Did we lie down, because ’twas night?

When her lover makes the excuse that business calls, she will have none of it.

He which hath business, and makes love, doth do
Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo.

In Confined Love he writes as himself and makes the case for free love.

Are sun, moon, or stars by law forbidden
To smile where they list, or lend away their light?
Are birds divorced, or are they chidden
If they leave their mate, or lie abroad a-night?

Later in life, when he became Dean of St Paul’s, Donne disowned his younger self. Fortunately for him, none of these early poems had been published, ensuring that the Dean was known for his sermons and meditations (“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”) not for his love poems.

Unrequited love has always been a favourite with male poets. The Roman poet Catullus (84-54 BC) wrote one of the shortest and most famous love poems about his mistress, an older married woman to whom he gave the name Lesbia.

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio, et excrucior.

Loosely translated: I hate and I love. How can that be? You might well ask. I don’t know, but I feel it, and it’s killing me.

His poems about Lesbia reveal a poet in torment. The only true love poem he ever wrote was addressed to his house.

Paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque ocelle

His beloved house in Sirmio on the shore of Lake Garda brought him more happiness than his beloved mistress ever did.

The lover sheweth how he is forsaken of such as he somtime enjoyed is a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42). He doesn’t even give his former mistress the benefit of a singular pronoun.

They flee from me, that sometime did me seke
With naked foot stalkying within my chamber.

After describing her (them) in the language of the hunt, he looks back on happier times, recalling one moment in particular.

Thanked be fortune, it hath bene otherwise
Twenty tymes better: but once especiall,
In thinne array, after a pleasant gyse,
When her loose gowne did from her shoulders fall,
And she me caught in her armes long and small,
And therwithall so sweetly did me kysse,
And softly sayd: deare hart, how like you this?

He turns her question back on herself in the final couplet, making what was once an invitation sound more like a threat.

But, sins that I unkyndly so am served:
How like you this, what hath she now deserved?

Tennyson wrote a very long love poem to his friend, Arthur Hallam, after his death. Unable to write about his love for another man as he might have done if he had been writing today, he spent seventeen years after his friend’s death writing a hundred and fifty short poems for him and published them anonymously in 1850 as a kind of sonnet sequence called In Memoriam A.H.H.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

The two Brownings, husband and wife, wrote about love in different ways. In her famous sonnet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning addresses her husband directly, unequivocally.

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.

Robert Browning does not address his wife directly in Love in a Life but writes about her in the manner of the dramatic monologues for which he is best known, with their half-rhymes and uncertain rhythm.

Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her –
Next time, herself! – not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch’s perfume!
As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew:
Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather.

The husband is indirect, allusive, looking for her and his answer to her question, but finding neither.

D.H.Lawrence wrote many love poems, mainly about himself. As in Last Words to Miriam where, comparing their ways of loving, he claims his to be the more natural and instinctive.

Yours is the sullen sorrow,
The disgrace is also mine;
Your love was intense and thorough,
Mine was the love of a growing flower
For the sunshine.

In Birth Night, he goes further, claiming for himself a kind of androgynous virgin birth.

You are lovely, your face is soft
Like a flower in bud
On a mountain croft.
This is Noël for me.
To-night is a woman born
Of the man in me.

Thomas Hardy, like Tennyson, wrote posthumous love poems, as if the absence of the loved one made it easier for him to say what he felt, as in The Voice.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Men find it hard to talk about their feelings. It seems that men who write poetry need the spur of rejection or grief, not just love itself, to write love poems.

Rupert Brooke, the great lover, writes in his poem of that name about things, not people, as the objects of his love.

Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours.

In another poem, he looks forward to a time when love will change to something better, quieter, less demanding.

That time when all is over, and
Hand never flinches, brushing hand;
And blood lies quiet, for all you’re near;
And it’s but spoken words we hear,
Where trumpets sang; when the mere skies
Are stranger and nobler than your eyes;
And flesh is flesh, was flame before;
And infinite hungers leap no more
In the chance swaying of your dress;
And love has changed to kindliness.

In the Garden, Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

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This entry was posted on March 10, 2021 by in poetry and tagged .
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