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:
She Walks in Beauty
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
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:
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.
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.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.