This year Slate again presents a small anthology of love poems that goes beyond the traditional sweetness of Valentine's Day chocolates, the prettiness of a dozen roses. One of the oldest traditions in love poetry is an impatience with love and love poetry—a note of exasperation that seeps into the declaration of passion. Honoring that tradition, this year's anthology ardently avoids the mushy.
To push past the mere prettiness of love is not necessarily to deny that love is, as George Peele says (with a dash of irony) in the 1580s, "a pretty, pretty thing":
WHAT THING IS LOVE
What thing is love? for sure love is a thing.
It is a prick, it is a sting,
It is a pretty, pretty thing;
It is a fire, it is a coal,
Whose flame creeps in at every hole;
And as my wit doth best devise,
Love's dwelling is in ladies' eyes,
From whence do glance love's piercing darts,
That make such holes into our hearts;
And all the world herein accord,
Love is a great and mighty lord;
And when he list to mount so high,
With Venus he in heaven doth lie,
And evermore hath been a god,
Since Mars and she played even and odd.
Readers who find bawdy jokes in "mount" or anywhere else in the poem are onto something, I think. And "pretty, pretty" is clearly more complicated and ambivalent than a single "pretty" would have been—the way "yeah, yeah" is not as positive as a single "yeah."
Earlier, in the 1530s, Sir Thomas Wyatt takes a tough, plain-spoken approach, but he does not deny that he perpetually "burneth." (Language about being "hot" seems to be a long-standing, maybe universal, erotic terminology.) Wyatt concedes his burning almost as an aside, in artful contrast with his businesslike terseness. (The useful, archaic word "bourdes" means "pranks" or "jokes.")
MADAM, WITHOUTEN MANY WORDS
Madam, withouten many words,
Once I am sure ye will or no;
And if ye will, then leave your bourdes,
And use your wit and show it so.
And with a beck ye shall me call;
And if of one that burneth alway
Ye have any pity at all,
Answer him fair with yea or nay.
If it be yea, I shall be fain;
If it be nay, friends as before;
Ye shall another man obtain,
And I mine own, and yours no more.
Wyatt is said to have been the lover of Anne Boleyn before she married Henry VIII. That may give a special meaning to "Ye shall another man obtain." The king had a lot to offer, but this elegant bluntness would give him something to compete with. As in Shakespeare and in the great screwball comedies of Hollywood, Wyatt's aggressively feigned indifference is itself an attractive, flirtatious display.
Love is associated with elegant rhetoric—and yet it is also supposed to be all-consuming, beyond such performance. That is the point of Wyatt's plainness. Elizabeth Bishop takes up the issue in "Casabianca," a poem that harks back to a now-forgotten chestnut of oral recitation, Felicia Hemans' once popular poem by the same title.
Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite "The boy stood on
the burning deck." Love's the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.
Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolboy platform, too,
or an excuse to stay
on deck. And love's the burning boy.
Like Wyatt's plainness, Bishop's allusions to reciting raise the question of how one can write verses when supposedly consumed by love.