Love, Across Time and Space, in Ten Poems
On Valentine’s Day, we have compiled our favourite love poems for you and your beloved.
What is love?
Does it mean never having to say you are sorry? Is it like a red, red rose? An ever fix’d mark that looks on tempests unshaken? A mad dog from hell?
None of these? All of these?
This question has consumed humanity for as long as there have been words to fail us when we need them most. For proof, look no further than world literature, where this preoccupation with love burns across time and space. 700 BC’s Lesbos, medieval England, late 19th century Bengal, modern day Canada – all have tried to sing of love, whether of its longing, or melancholy, or jealousy, or inadequacy, or joyous fulfilment.
Here then, for your pleasure, are some of the finest specimens of love poetry the generous history of literature has to offer. Please feel free to pilfer any of these to serenade your loved one on this day.
Sappho’s Fragment 130
Percussion, salt and honey,
A quivering in the thighs;
He shakes me all over again,
Eros who cannot be thrown,
Who stalks on all fours
Like a beast.
Eros makes me shiver again
Strengthless in the knees,
Eros gall and honey,
– 620-550 BC, Lesbos, Greece
Catullus’s ‘To Lesbia’
He seems equal to the gods, to me, that man,
if it’s possible more than just divine,
who sitting over against you, endlessly
sees you and hears you
laughing so sweetly, that with fierce pain I’m robbed
of all of my senses: because that moment
I see you, Lesbia, nothing’s left of me.....
but my tongue is numbed, and through my poor limbs
fires are raging, the echo of your voice
rings in both ears, my eyes are covered
with the dark of night.
– c. 84-54 BC, Roman Republic
Mirabai’s ‘I Am Mad With Love’
I am mad with love
And no one understands my plight.
Only the wounded
Understand the agonies of the wounded,
When the fire rages in the heart.
Only the jeweller knows the value of the jewel,
Not the one who lets it go.
In pain I wander from door to door,
But could not find a doctor.
Says Mira: Harken, my Master,
Mira’s pain will subside
When Shyam comes as the doctor.
– Late 15th century, India
W. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments, love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come,
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
– 1592-1598, England
John Milton’s Sonnet 23
Methought I saw my late espoused saint...
...Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.*
– 1645, England
(*Milton was blind)
Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Unending Love’
I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times…
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever...
...Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours –
And the songs of every poet past and forever.
– 1930s, Calcutta, India
W H Auden’s ‘Oh Tell Me The Truth About Love’
Some say love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
Some say that’s absurd...
...Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.
When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
– 1933, USA
D H Lawrence’s ‘Leda’
Come not with kisses
not with caresses
of hands and lips and murmurings;
come with a hiss of wings
and sea-touch tip of a beak
and treading of wet, webbed, wave-working feet
into the marsh-soft belly
– Late 1930s, England
Denise Levertov’s ‘The Ache of Marriage’
The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth
We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each
It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it
two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.
– 1960-1967, USA
Margaret Atwood’s ‘You Fit Into Me’
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
– 1971, Canada
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