Favorite love poems

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 11 2005 4:21 PM

A Little Anthology of Love Poems

What to read your sweetheart on Valentine's Day.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Is romantic love universal, or is it an elegant pursuit invented by flirtatious lords and ladies, or their poets and troubadours, in the medieval courts of southern Europe?—as suggested by the very words "courtship" and "romantic." (Narratives or "romances" were written in the post-Roman, non-Latin languages of the region.)

The monk Andreas Capellanus wrote "The Art of Courtly Love" sometime around the year 1180, including rules that sound familiar:

Rule 1: Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
Rule 2: He who is not jealous cannot love.

Certainly modern life, with its emphasis on erotic needs and desires, tends to support Rule 9: "No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons." The traditions of St. Valentine's Day—cards, poems, flowers, candy, music—conform with what may be Capellanus' most interesting principle, Rule 10: "No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love."

Love is linked to art and persuasion, and also to the ideal or affectation of innocence. Poetry has roots in courtly flirtation, seduction, and complaint—that is, in courtship. For example, the brilliant, learned, and sophisticated aristocrat Sir Phillip Sidney wrote, affectingly, as though in the voice of a shepherd girl:

MY TRUE LOVE HATH MY HEART AND I HAVE HIS

My true love hath my heart and I have his,
By just exchange one for another given;
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven.
        My true love has my heart and I have his.

His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides;
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his, because in me it bides.
        My true love hath my heart and I have his.

Sidney's writing here, with its play between apparent plainness and witty elaboration, resembles graceful flirtation. He weaves the serious game of love and the serious game of poetry into one pleasure.

In another of my favorite love poems, William Butler Yeats uses the word "game," but in order to reach beyond it:

HER TRIUMPH

I did the dragon's will until you came
Because I had fancied love a casual
Improvisation, or a settled game
That followed if I let the kerchief fall:
Those deeds were best that gave the minute wings
And heavenly music if they gave it wit;
And then you stood among the dragon rings.
I mocked, being crazy, but you mastered it
And broke the chain and set my ankles free,
Saint George or else a pagan Perseus;
And now we stare astonished at the sea,
And a miraculous strange bird shrieks at us.

The dragon, the "settled game," the chained ankles, the almost casual conflation of Christian saint and classical hero, the startling bird that "shrieks" at the end: All these evoke the power of love's strangeness, rather than its sweetness. No flowers or chocolates here, and even the phrase "heavenly music" is associated with the shallow games that preceded the serious, unsettling passion.