I’m sure St. Valentine didn’t intend to become the patron saint of crappy poetry, and I know the Vatican hasn’t officially ruled on that, yet, but let’s not kid ourselves.
You can, as many do, ignore the brightly colored rhyme schemes and schlocky phrases, and go for romantic poems that were created for a less commercial purpose, but even then, there’s only so much one can do with the old standbys.
Call me burned out, but it’s getting to the point where Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch could knock on my door with flowers and ask me if they could Compare me to a Summer’s Day and/or Count the Ways, and I’d ask if they could help me clean out the kids’ playroom instead.*
The newer stuff, while more to the point, doesn’t always do it for me, either. Modern poems—and lyrics, too—always seem to be on one side of the scale or the other: true wuv that borders on Jerry Springer codependency or cynical Bah, Humcupidity:
Red is the rose
Green is the spinach
If you think love is all that
Just hold on a minute . . .
That doesn’t mean there aren’t poems about romantic love out there that don’t resonate with me, but the stuff that would have worked just fine when I was a yearning sixteen-year old or a defiantly single twenty-something just doesn’t feel the same to a happily married forty-cough mother of two.
So I sorted through my stash until I found three that don’t send me into sugar shock or a deep depression.
They’re all from the 17th Century, which wasn’t my intention but doesn’t surprise me—surely no other time produced poets such as John Donne, who could so smoothly and suavely compare the natural growth of love with tax increases:
I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make’ it more.
But if medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mixed of all stuffs paining soul or sense,
And of the sun his working vigor borrow,
Love’s not so pure, and abstract, as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.
And yet no greater, but more eminent,
Love by the spring is grown;
As, in the firmament
Stars by the sun are not enlarged, but shown,
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From love’s awakened root do bud out now.
If, as water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take,
Those, like so many spheres, but one heaven make,
For they are all concentric unto thee;
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in time of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.
And then there’s Thomas Campion, who was a lyricist, as well as a poet—again, I’d argue that all lyricists are—and while he appears to have written plenty of the usual rose-blush odes to love during his career, he does occasionally indicate that just because he knew what would sell doesn’t mean he didn’t know the score:
Never Love Unless
Never love unless you can
Bear with all the faults of man:
Men sometimes will jealous be
Though but little cause they see;
And hang the head, as discontent,
And speak what straight they will repent.
Men that but one saint adore
Make a show of love to more.
Beauty must be scorned in none,
Though but truly served in one:
For what is courtship but disguise?
True hearts may have dissembling eyes.
Men, when their affairs require,
Must awhile themselves retire;
Sometimes hunt, and sometimes hawk,
And not ever sit and talk.
If these and such-like you can bear,
Then like, and love, and never fear!
But I think that my beloved Ben Jonson wins this round, because it’s my blog and also my considered opinion that this is the kind of thing any woman of a certain age would be glad to hear:
A Celebration of Charis: I. His Excuse for Loving
Let it not your wonder move,
Less your laughter, that I love.
Though I now write fifty years,
I have had, and have, my peers;
Poets, though divine, are men,
Some have lov’d as old again.
And it is not always face,
Clothes, or fortune, gives the grace;
Or the feature, or the youth.
But the language and the truth,
With the ardour and the passion,
Gives the lover weight and fashion.
If you then will read the story,
First prepare you to be sorry
That you never knew till now
Either whom to love or how;
But be glad, as soon with me,
When you know that this is she
Of whose beauty it was sung;
She shall make the old man young,
Keep the middle age at stay,
And let nothing high decay,
Till she be the reason why
All the world for love may die.
It that doesn’t get you in the mood, you’re not paying attention.
What’s your favorite romantic poem? Song? Cleaning product?
*After I hyperventilate and tell them who they are a couple of times in a croak because my vocal cords have seized up, and then drop like an ungainly pile of unflattering clothing at their feet,. And I’m not saying that after I recovered I wouldn’t hand them both copies of the first door stop-sized tome I could find around the house— Shakespeare’s complete works, Lewis Carroll, Stephen King, Anaïs Nin, the phone book—because who seriously cares what these two men recite as long as they don’t stop?