Poetry in the Age of Romance

Poetry in the Age of Romance

The romantic poetry of a besotted lover is, in my opinion, one of the most delightful treasures of the human experience. What woman who has received a love poem composed by her sweetheart can deny the power of those words? Words that expose his vulnerability to her charms. Words that set aside flaws and cite her perfections. Words born of admiration, tenderness or passion are particularly heart-rending. The wonderful thing about love poetry is that it celebrates the most profound of human emotions, and authentic feelings, well expressed, resonate on a level beyond the reach of analysis and cerebral pursuits.

I am more of an Elinor-ish sort of person and don’t relate to Marianne Dashwood on many things, but when it comes to poetry, we are simpatico. In the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson’s screenplay employed poetry to demonstrate Edward’s bewilderment when it came to romantic words, prejudicing Marianne against him. This was the early setup for one of my favorite scenes in the film when Colonel Brandon sits in the sunlight beside a recuperating Marianne and reads her poetry. The depth of love the Colonel holds for Marianne is illuminated in the dulcet tones of Alan Rickman’s gentle reading. To me, Marianne’s response to that soothing voice is reminiscent of a wild animal mesmerized by the whisper of a tamer.

Love poetry flourished during the Romantic Era, which was at its peak from 1800 to 1850. Jane Austen was undoubtedly a “romantic.” We throw that word around a lot in today’s society – often preceded by “hopeless” which has always struck me as ironic, since romantics are, by definition, hopeful. The romantic person of Austen’s era would have been very connected with the natural world (What are men to rocks and mountains?) Those who were influenced by the romantic movement both acknowledged and accepted an individual’s emotions, although the rules of propriety still demanded that they be held in check, which turned out to be a catch-22 for poor Jane Bennet who had fallen in love with Bingley, but was not free to show those feelings, setting her up for Darcy to claim she did not have them.  The workings of the imagination were also more accepted, an attitude we see reflected in Northanger Abbey’s heroine, Catherine Moreland, although Austen used her imagination as a plot device to illustrate the potential for letting one’s imagination run away from them.

The workings of the imagination were also more accepted during the Romantic era. This attitude we observe in Northanger Abbey’s heroine, Catherine Moreland, although Austen used her imagination as a plot device to illustrate the potential for letting one’s imagination run away from them.

One of the great romantic poems of all time was written by Lord Byron, in 1814. The lady who inspired the poem was Byron’s cousin, Lady Wilmot Horton, whom he had never met prior to their mutual attendance at a party given by Lady Sitwell. The lady was in mourning, dressed in black, and the stark contrast of her attire with her youthful beauty inspired the famous verses below:

Lord Byron

She Walks in Beauty

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

  ~*~

In modern times, love poetry commonly deviates from pure romance with twists of humor, irony, sarcasm and dual meanings. This poem by Scottish Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy is a great example of this trend:

Valentine

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

Now it’s your turn. If you have a favorite love poem or if you would like to compose one – it could be as simple as a couplet, haiku or limerick please feel free to share. Or, if you hate Lord Byron and despise onions, tell us all about it. And don’t forget – tomorrow is Valentine’s day – perfect for poetry. It is also (I’m told) Single Awareness Day. Something for everyone. Poems about that are also welcome.

19 Responses to Poetry in the Age of Romance

  1. Poetry was never part of my education, sadly. I only remember studying poetry one year in high school, learning of verse and stanza, etc. But when I taught kindergarten I taught my students a poem every months which they learned simply by echoing me line-by-line, day-after-day. I never required that they quote it back but if they did I gave them a sticker, which seemed to please them. They especially loved, When Daddy Carves the Turkey by Jack Prelutsky. It is not a romantic poem. I love when authors use poetry in their books or a line as a title for a chapter. I do wish I had the talent of quoting such. The above poem by Lord Byron is so very lovely. I have read it used in some tales. Thanks for sharing.

    • Your students are fortunate that they had in introduction of poetry from you. I have heard that those who are exposed to rich, beautiful language at a young age are more likely to appreciate it through their life. You gave them a gift. I can still quote snatches of poems I learned in grade school. I’m grateful to my teachers for including poetry in their curriculum.

  2. That poem by Lord Byron is just beautiful. At my school, when we were studying English Literature, our year didn’t get the chance to study his works but we did get to study one of his contempories, John Keats. I don’t remember studying any romantic poetry by him but I did grow to love his writing. A lot of the time, for me, it’s not necessarily understanding the underlying meaning of what the poet has written, it’s just the flow, cadence and the sounds of the words, especially when spoken out loud.

    • Keats’ poetry has a depth and power that often moves me too. It’s a tragedy that he only lived to be 25. Although his lifetime corresponds so closely with the era of Romance, his poetry was ahead of it’s time. I know what you mean about the flow, cadence and sounds of the words. I sometimes feel that way too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • You are so right – that may well be one of the reasons it touches me too. The crossover of poetry and music is pronounced during that era. The well-constructed poetry of that day is often well suited as lyrics, just as lyrics are so often poetical. Such a lovely insight, Jen. Thank you.

  3. How interesting! I had never read the onion poem before. I enjoy some poetry of the Romantic era but I also enjoy Shakespeare and John Dunne — especially his metaphysical poetry. Happy Valentine’s Day!

    • You have excellent taste, Rose! When it comes to poetry, I like what I like. For every one poem that hits me just right, I have to wade through dozens that are “meh” to me. John Dunne has a much higher ratio that that for me. 🙂

  4. I read a lot of WW1 poetry. I know it probably comes across as depressing but it’s very meaningful. There’s one in particular I love.It’s called A Story of Today by Constance Powell and it’s heart rending. Was never much into romantic poetry but I read a line in a book once that always stuck with me, ‘each in his lonely night, each with a ghost’. I don’t know what it is about it I just love it.

    • They are definitely different – but both move me – just in different ways. I love knowing who has dropped in, so thank you for taking a moment to comment, even if you didn’t have a poem to share. Here’s wishing you a wonderful Valentine’s Day tomorrow!

  5. I studied literature in college and took a few poetry classes and although there are a few poems I thought were good, I have never loved any. I guess I’m too much like Elinor in that I just don’t get them and I definitely cannot compose them. I wish I did though.

    • Poetry is a form that is deeply personal, and not everyone responds to it the same, even among Austen’s characters. Remember Elizabeth’s famous diss of the poetic form:

      “And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”

      “I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.

      “Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

      I have always wondered if this was how she really felt, or if this was an occasion where she was expressing an opinion “not entirely her own” just to mess with Darcy. LOL.

  6. I love that people love poetry, but I don’t know anything about it. I can’t write it, and I don’t usually ‘get it’ when I read it. I mean, it sounds nice, but I gather from other people that there’s usually a deeper meaning to a poem, and I have no idea what that meaning ever is. I do have a favorite poem, though. Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott. I like the way it sounds and I like that it’s about a knight, daring deeds and love. (If that’s not really what it’s about, don’t tell me! I’m happy in my poetic ignorance) 🙂

Your thoughts are precious!