A Little Anthology of Love Poems
What to read your sweetheart on Valentine's Day.
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:
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.
Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty."My true love hath my heart and I have his" by Sir Phillip Sidney. "Her Triumph" by William Butler Yeats from The Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran; Copyright 1940 by Georgie Yeats, renewed 1960 by Bertha Georgie Yeats; Copyright 1928 by Macmillan Publishing Company, renewed 1956 by Georgie Yeats; Reprinted courtesy of A P Watt Ltd on behalf of Michael B. Yeats (Users must not reproduce, download, store in any medium, distribute, transmit or retransmit or manipulate this text on this Web site). "Wild Nights—Wild Nights!" by Emily Dickinson from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson; Copyright © 1929 by Martha Dickinson, renewed 1957 Mary L. Hampson; Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the president and fellows of Harvard College. "The soul selects her own society" by Emily Dickinson: This version reflects an early publication of the poem that does not adhere to Dickinson's own language and punctuation; HUP denied permission to use the correct version from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. "Love Song: I and Thou" by Alan Dugan from New and Collected Poems 1961-1983; Copyright 1983 by Alan Dugan; Reprinted with the permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. "Mock Orange" by Louise Glück from The Triumph of Achilles; Copyright 1985 by Louise Glück; Reprinted with the permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. "That man is a peer to the gods, who" by William Carlos Williams from Collected Poems 1939-1962, Volume II; Copyright 1962 by William Carlos Williams; Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. "Methought I saw my late espoused saint" by John Milton. "The Act" by William Carlos Williams from Collected Poems 1939-1962, Volume II. Copyright 1948 by William Carlos Williams. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" by Wallace Stevens from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens, copyright 1954 by Wallace Stevens and renewed in 1982 by Holly Stevens. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.