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The theme of love has forever enchanted and encouraged poets for century. Whether it is unrequited or secretive, love has fuelled some of the most beautiful and celebrated poems in history, with poets expressing their love in unique and moving ways. From timeless English sonnets to modern American classics, here is a list of the 10 classic love poems.
Written in 1813, She Walks in Beauty is often cited as one of Lord Byron’s most romantic and famous works. It is among several poems which the poet composed to Jewish melodies, which were all published in 1815 as Hebrew Melodies. This specific poem is said to have been inspired by a real event in Byron’s life. Whilst at a ball, he encountered his marital cousin, Lady Wilmot Horton, who was mourning the loss of her husband. Byron was captivated by her unusual beauty, and the following morning, he penned the poem. The opening lines are believed to describe the sparkling black dress the lady was wearing:
‘She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies’.
However, other sources believe that the poem is about Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh, with whom he may have had an incestuous relationship. Nevertheless, the poem is a timeless classic, with Byron painting a poignant picture of this captivating woman.
Although it is disputed as to when John Keats wrote this iconic piece, Bright Star is believed to have been written for Fanny Brawne, who was betrothed to Keats, and was not officially published until 1838, some 17 years after Keats’ death. In this sonnet, the poet expresses his wish to be as constant and as eternal as a star ‘still stedfast, still unchangeable, Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast’. However, he realises this is an ideal, and in the following lines, he states how he does not want the star’s loneliness, as the star will be forever in the sky, far away from his lover. Employing the rhyming form of a Shakespearean sonnet, the poem flows like a stream of thought, concluding with the poet’s desire to hear his lover’s breathing forever:
‘To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.’
The poem’s opening words inspired the title of the 2009 Keats biopic, starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish. With its innovative use of imagery, Keats poem is often marked as one of the most beautiful and unique love poems of all time.
A member of the Romantic Movement, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a troubled upbringing. Plagued with a lung ailment for much of her life, Elizabeth spent much of her time reading and learning, and began writing poetry around the age of 12. Despite her illness, Elizabeth produced a number of poetry collections, one of which, entitled Poems and published in 1844, caught the attention of famed poet and playwright Robert Browning. Impressed by her work, Robert wrote Elizabeth a letter, and their relationship blossomed over the following 20 months, with 574 letters exchanged between them during this time. Robert was six years her junior and this angered Elizabeth’s father, who owned a number of plantations in Jamaica. However, the couple fled and eloped, settling in Florence in 1846. Before their marriage, Elizabeth penned her classic Sonnets from the Portuguese, which is dedicated to her husband and was written in secret. Published in 1850, this collection is considered to be one of her most celebrated works, with it often compared to works by Shakespeare and Petrarch. The most beautiful poem from this collection is often cited as Sonnet 43 How do I love thee? which describes the many ways in which she loved her husband:
‘I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
…I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.’
A favourite amongst readers and fellow poets, such as the late Seamus Heaney, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Whose List to Hunt is often hailed as one of the most romantic poems of all time. Wyatt was both a poet and a Tudor courtier, who is said to have popularised the Petrarchan sonnet. What makes his poetry so engaging and enchanting is its personal nature, and how his words seem to come from the heart. This love poem, Whose List to Hunt, is believed to have been written about Anne Boleyn and her marriage to Henry VIII. It is said that Boleyn was a childhood friend of Wyatt, and that the poem describes his anguish and heartbreak over her marriage to the king. The use of the Petrarchan sonnet meant that Wyatt could hide his true feeling beneath a complex layer of rhyme and poetic convention, with Henry never knowing. Wyatt’s poem could be based on the format of Petrarch’s Una Candida Cerv (Rime 190). In Wyatt’s work, the poet is enchanted by a vision of a white doe, but who is already claimed by ‘Caesar’ (which is believed to be a metaphor for Henry). The poem builds to the famous crescendo and most quoted lines:
‘…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.’
The doe cannot be touched (noli me tangere) but she teases the poet, declaring herself to be too wild to be held, which signifies Wyatt’s true anguish – that the poet will never have his beautiful dear.
Rising to prominence during the punk era of the late 1970s, John Cooper Clarke is a performance poet who likes to break convention. Associated with many famous bands such as Joy Division, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, Clarke was a leading voice of the punk movement. His works are often social commentaries or criticism, laced with pointed sarcasm and humour. However, one poem which breaks this mould, and which is often regarded as a modern day love poem, is I Wanna be Yours. Clarke states that he wrote the poem in the early 1980s, inspired by popular music at the time. The poem is tongue-in-cheek, opening with the lines:
‘I wanna be your vacuum cleaner
Breathing in your dust
I wanna be your Ford Cortina
I will never rust
If you like your coffee hot
Let me be your coffee pot…’
The rest of the poem follows the same tone, continuing to describe the poet’s devotion and admiration for his love. The poem was adapted by the Arctic Monkeys in 2013 and featured on their album AM, showing that the poem still resonates today as much as it did when it was first written.
Widely known for his work in the theatre, Harold Pinter was the winner of many awards, such as the Wilfred Owen Award, the Shakespeare Prize, the European Prize for Literature, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, perhaps lesser known, Pinter was also a poet. His plays and much of his poetry are often menacing in tone, however, one poem deviates from the usual mood. Entitled It is Here, this short piece is dedicated to his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, and describes the first time these met. The poem details a strange sound that causes the couple to pause and ponder, before revealing it was the first breath they took when they saw each other:
‘What sound was that?
I turn away, into the shaking room.
What did we hear?
It was the breath we took when we first met.
Listen. It is here.’
Short and sweet, this poem beautifully describes a simple moment that was forever enshrined in Pinter’s memory, and in literature.
Perhaps one of William Shakespeare’s lesser known and quoted sonnets, Sonnet 109 has a tone of confidence that is rarely found in his other works. One of 154 sonnets the poet wrote, and part of the Fair Youth Sequence, Shakespeare’s sonnet expresses his love for a younger man, although he admits that he may have been unfaithful while he was away on tour:
‘O never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify.’
However, the poem continues with Shakespeare expressing his eternal love for the man. Shakespeare states that his infidelities stem from his desire to retain his youth, but that his errors have made his love for the man all more evident to him:
‘That is my home of love; if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.’
He has returned to the younger man, although he is aware that his love may not be unrequited. Consisting of three quatrains and a couplet at the end, the poem is dedicated to a ‘Mr W.H.’, who is believed to have been Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. Yet, the exact nature of his love for Mr W.H. is disputed. However, the sonnet’s theme of love is incontestable, and is perhaps summed up by the concluding rhyming couplet:
‘For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.’
A different kind of love poem, but nevertheless beautiful, Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott’s Love After Love is written to the heartbroken reader, teaching them to love themselves and to find peaceful inner solitude after a breakup. The poem is found in the Nobel Prize winner’s Collected Poems: 1948–1984, and preaches that in order for the reader to love others again, they must first learn to love themselves. The opening lines reveal this train of thought:
‘The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.’
The following lines are perhaps some of the most important in the poem, telling the reader to take time for themselves:
‘You will love again the stranger who was your self
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored…’
The poem concludes with powerful words that stretch beyond the repairing of a broken heart, to become a mantra for life, as Walcott tells us to ‘Feast on your life.’ A modern classic, this poem is an important lesson on love and life.
One of Ireland’s most renowned poets, William Butler Yeats’ poetry focused on themes of Irish politics, history and society, as well as his overwhelming and unrequited love for Maud Gonne. Although he later married Georgie Hyde Lees, this poem, When you are Old, was written in 1891 about his uncertain relationship with Maud. The poem is believed to be based on a sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard. The poem tells the reader that when she is older, that she should read a particular book, which will remind her of her youth, and how one man loved her unconditionally throughout her life, for ‘…the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face’. Although saddened by his unrequited love, the poet is not bitter, and states how his love will never fade: ‘…And paced upon the mountains overhead, And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.’ While the poem ends on a sad note, the slow tempo combined with poignant and caring imagery make this a beautiful, timeless love poem.
Part of her collection Twenty-One Love Poems from the book The Dream of a Common Language, Poem II is a beautiful piece by North-American poet Adrienne Rich. The poem details the poet waking up in her lover’s bed, having dreamed about the lover. In her dream, the lover was a poem, which she wants to show to everyone. This reveals the true adoration Adrienne feels for her lover, which she describes as ‘the poem of my life’. However, she finds that being open about her relationship is not simple, perhaps relating to the alienation and discrimination she felt about being a lesbian. However, her connection with her lover and their happiness is described beautifully in this work, in how her lover wakes her by kissing her, and in her ‘desire to show you to everyone I love.’