Classic English Love Poems (Study Guide)

Study Guide for Classic English Love Poems
Note: a few poems which are not in the public domain do not have links here. You'll have to read them in a book.
Shakespeare: "Sonnet XXX"
What sorts of things does the poet say he thinks of during his "sessions of sweet silentthought?" Why do both pleasant and unpleasant memories make him unhappy? Howdo the final two lines reveal the real point of the poem? What effect does it produce to havepostponed this direct address so long while the poet detailed various sorts of suffering?
"Sonnet XVIII"
This is one of Shakespeare's most famous poems, consisting of a critique of stereotypicalmetaphors for women's beautiful features. What are the usual stereotypes, and how does hereverse or modify them? "Ow'st" means "ownest" or"own," "possess." "This" in the last line refers to thissonnet itself. What is the poet saying about his own power? Is this a flattering poem? Why orwhy not?
"Sonnet CXVI"
This poem tries to define "true" love. What qualities does such love have,according to the poet? A "bark" is a ship, so love is compared to a fixed star whichmay be steered by (a sailor would sight such a star's altitude to aid in locating his ship'sposition on the sea), but its true nature is far beyond ordinary human knowledge. The sickleor scythe of time is a traditional symbol of death, or its approach. What twounlikely/impossible things does the poet compare to the possibility of his being wrong aboutlove?
Edmund Waller: "Song"
Here is yet another in the long series of European poems ranging back to antiquity whichcompare young women to flowers and urge them to make the best of their youthful beauty bymaking love before they wither and grow unattractive (carpe diem). By the Renaissance, thestandard flower for this purpose had become the rose. Waller creates an interesting variationon the usual theme by addressing himself directly to the rose, telling it to bear his message tothe woman he admires. "Resemble" in the fourth line means"compare." To "waste" can mean to "waste away," ordiminish, as well as having the obvious sense. What quality in the young woman is the poetreproving? Why does he want the rose to die?
Anonymous: "To His Love"
This is the text of a famous madrigal by John Dowland. Although the song is set at dawn, itis not a "dawn song" of the traditional type, for it calls for lovemaking to begin,not cease, at daybreak. The first stanza celebrates the naturalness of love. What sort ofrepentance ("rueing") is urged in the next to the last line of this stanza? In thesecond stanza the poet urges a romantic retreat to the shadows from the sun's "fieryarrows." Even though in this stanza the poet sees an element of nature (the sun) as theenemy of love, unlike in the first stanza, he still manages to associate nature with sexualurges in the last line. Explain. "Wastes" has the meaning of "is beingwasted" or "is passing away." "Hie" simply means"go." "Dying" alludes to the threat of death by love - longing, butprobably also bears the Renaissance meaning "to experience orgasm." The finalstanza is somewhat ambiguous. Like many other such verses, it could be only a piece offlattery telling a woman she has no need of make - up or fancy clothes to enhance her naturalbeauty; but it probably also means: "don't put your clothes on!" Note the referenceto Cypris=Venus. The statement that lilies "desire no beauties but their own" is adaring reference to Matthew 6:28: "And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider thelilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you,That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." The poet'simpious/impudent argument continues that clothing promotes vanity ("pride")and should therefore be shunned.
Andrew Marvell: "To His Coy Mistress"
This carpe diem poem is one of the greatest in English. Basically, the message is the sameold "let's do it now before it's too late;" but the world - ranging sweep of theimagery and the marvelous language give it an intoxicating power which is fully apparentonly when it is read aloud, especially the conclusion. Like Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII, this isat least partly an attempt to make an old point in a new way, by critiquing the limited,stereotypical imagery of the past. Many poems from Hellenistic times forward had used thethreat of oncoming death to pressure a reluctant woman; but here the imagery of death is sopowerful that the poem transcends the clich├ęd "lines" of more frivolouswriters to become a stirring meditation on the importance of living fully during the briefspan allotted us.
Stanza 1: "World enough and time" has become a catch phrase, drawn from thispoem and used in a variety of contexts. The first two lines mean "If we had enoughtime, your reluctance wouldn't be a crime." The Humber is a British river, very farindeed from the Ganges; so the lovers would be extremely separated. The Biblical deluge, theFlood referred to here, was often used as a convenient demarcation setting off the mostancient times. "Antediluvian" (pre - Flood) still means "truly ancient."So the poet is saying that from a period even older than that very distant date he could haveloved her, all the way down to the present. Christians believed that the Jews would beconverted at the Second Coming of Christ, at the end of the world. So these lines essentiallysay, "if I could live so long, I would love you from the beginning to the end oftime." Vegetables do not move as quickly as animals; their growth is gradual. Whatadvantages does he say there would be to such a gradually developing love? An"age" would be a large historical period, like the Classical Age, or the Middle Ages.Why does he save her heart for last, do you think? "Nor would I" means"And I wouldn't want to."
Stanza 2: The sun, which marks the passage of each day, was said to travel in a chariot acrossthe sky. What does it mean to "hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near" atone's back? Why is the future a desert? Whereas Shakespeare boasted that his poetry wouldpreserve the memory of his beloved, Marvell does not use the ars longa, vita brevis argument. What does he say instead about his song? The imagery used in this stanza is bothsarcastic and harsh, but undeniably realistic. A Fine and Private Place has been used as abook title by several authors, notably Peter S. Beagle.
Stanza 3: "Transpires" means "perspires:" the sweat of passion is asprecious and fleeting as morning dew. To "sport" is to make love. Thecomparison of lovers to courting birds is familiar, but what does Marvell achieve bycomparing his lovers to "birds of prey ?" "Slow - chapt" means"slow - jawed," or "slowly chewing." Rather than allowing themselvesto be gradually devoured by time, the poet says the lovers should instead devour time.Whereas many poems implored the sun to slow down, permitting time for lovemaking,these lovers will outpace the sun itself in the ferocity of their passion, and make it run afterthem.
Christopher Marlowe: "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"
Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare and an important playwright, here indulges intypical escapist Renaissance Arcadian imagery. "Prove" here has the sense of"try out," "experience." A "kirtle" is a sort of sleevelessover - dress. Myrtle was especially associated with Venus. Note how he combines preciousmaterials unlikely to be within the grasp with simple rustic materials like wool and straw. A"swain" is often a rural lover, but here seems to have its more basic meaning of"servant." What kind of appeal do you think such a poem would be intended tohave for a cultured and elegant urban lady?
Sir Walter Ralegh: "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"
Raleigh was a adventurer, explorer, and a close friend of Queen Elizabeth. He had areputation for cynicism which is well reflected in this witty reply to Marlowe's poem. List theobjections that the nymph makes to the shepherd's invitation in your own language.Philomel is the nightingale. The image in "wanton fields/To wayward winterreckoning yields" is a sexual one of summer's beauty being ravished and wasted by thedespoliation of winter. Gall is notoriously bitter - tasting. "Fancy" is"imagination." What is the one thing the nymph says would make his invitationappealing?
Ben Jonson: "Song: To Celia"
What substitutes for toasts of wine does the poet suggest? Why does he say a mere materialdrink is inadequate for the purpose? "Jove" is Jupiter, lord of the classical gods,used frequently as a symbol of divinity in secular poetry. The gods were supposed to drink aheavenly nectar far finer than any earthly wine. "Late" means"recently." How does Jonson make a surprising and interesting switch on theusual rose/beauty theme (as illustrated above in Waller's "Song")? Explain howhe has turned the lady's rejection of him into a complement.
John Donne: "Song"
This belongs to the very large category of European poems cynically depicting women asuniformly faithless. Its cynicism is, however, masked in beautiful language. It lists a numberof marvelous or impossible things and then compares them to that rarest of beings: a faithfulwoman. How does the conclusion of the poem reject the possibility of such a creature evenmore strongly than the earlier lines? It was believed that mandrake roots could betransformed into human beings through magic, mostly because they sometimes lookedvaguely like a human body. "Fair" means "beautiful," so the poet issaying that no woman can be both beautiful and faithful. Why do you think men have beenso anxious to portray women as faithless?
Anonymous: "Western Wind"
This is a hauntingly beautiful song whose melody became the basis for John Tavener's Western Wind Mass. It appeals to modern readers because of its combination of passionatedirectness and mystery, partly caused by the antiquated language. The Western wind bringsthe spring rains, gentler than the torrents of winter. In structure it is remarkably like a haiku,two lines taken from nature and another two about personal feelings. Today we would insert"that" at the beginning of the second line. How does the order of the lines makethe conclusion especially powerful? Explain why this might be read as a traveler's or sailor'ssong.
Emily Dickinson: "Alter! When the Hills Do"
Although at first glance the exclamations in this poem might seem to be addressed tosomeone else as commands, they are in fact to be read as exclamations of astonishment(" Change! Me? No way! ). "Surfeit" means "become satiated."What qualities does the poet's love have which correspond to each of the three metaphorsdrawn from nature? Dickinson habitually used dashes for all manner of punctuation, afeature of her verse that is not preserved in all editions.
"I See Thee Better - - In the Dark"
One of the wonders of American literature is the passionate intensity of the poetry writtenby this woman who led a very sheltered and outwardly uneventful life. Her inner life wasobviously passionate, however restrained her actions may have been. This poem on thetriumph of love over death is especially striking. The first stanza uses a scientific metaphor toexpress the idea that her love can penetrate even the darkness of death. A prism breaks upvisible light into a spectrum, but she is aware of the invisible ultraviolet. Even the passage oftime cannot dim her love. "Its little panels" are the little windows of a miner'slamp. In the last stanza, in what way does she say darkness is better than sunlight?
Edna St. Vincent Millay: "Theme and Variation, 2"
Millay was a wildly popular poet in the 1920s, subsequently largely forgotten, now beingrediscovered. She stressed the passionate longing for intense experience characteristic ofmany young people in that period. In this poem she addresses herself to her wildly poundingheart. The third stanza implies there is no good reason for these palpitations; what is in factcausing them? What does it mean that "he" has entered her eyes but not herheart? Why does she tell her mind to go to sleep? Is she rejecting love or welcoming it?
Christina Rossetti: "Echo,"
Rossetti is well known as part of the Pre - Raphaelite movement of writers and artists whotried to revive Medieval themes in the Victorian age. How can we tell that the person she isaddressing is dead? The dream of their love should have ended in both lovers"awakening" in Heaven together, but she has outlived him. What is the"slow door?"
Emily Dickinson: "If You Were Coming in the Fall"
Why does the poet find it difficult to wait, though she expresses a willingness to wait forcenturies or even spend her whole life waiting? "Van Diemen's land" is an oldname for Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "Sonnet XLIII, from the Portuguese"
Sonnets from the Portuguese are not translations, as the title implies, but a series of poemsby the ailing Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her beloved Robert, one of the most distinguished19th - century poets. Their love story is a famous one, often retold in fiction, and on the stageand screen. This is her most best - known. Like many Victorian writers she uses religiouslanguage freely, but for secular purposes. It may even be read as blasphemously idolatrous.The first four lines say that her love for him exceeds even the extent of the widest search shecan grope toward in search of God. What effect does the sudden drop down to dailyordinariness have on the poem? Does it make us think less of her love? She was writingduring a period which democratic revolutions were sweeping across Europe, and it is naturalfor her to emphasize how "freely" she gives her love in a political metaphor.Why is it pure to turn from praise? She measures the intensity of her love against her formersorrows, the simple surety of childhood, and her former religious beliefs. Like MedievalItalian poets, she looks forward to loving him after death as well.
Lord Byron: "She Walks in Beauty
Of all the English Romantic poets, Byron was by far the most influential internationally.His works were translated into all the major European languages and inspired countlesspaintings, plays, and operas. Together he and the novelist Sir Walter Scott imposed anEnglish stamp on the art, literature and music of a whole era. Europeans had traditionallypraised blonde, light - skinned women as the most beautiful. In this poem Byron celebratesdark beauty. England lacks a "cloudless clime;" what sort of land do you supposewould have the kind of star - filled night he imagines? Why does he call day"gaudy?" Her hair is raven - black. (Note the ironic juxtaposition of this poem inour book with a picture of a blonde.) How does he make precise his argument that hercoloring is perfect? Although darkness and night were often associated with evil, he affirmsthat her dark beauty expresses pure goodness.
Robert Burns: "A Red, Red Rose"
Burns is Scotland's national poet. He wrote much of his work in Scots dialect, and most ofit is meant to be sung. "Sprung" means "opened" or"blossomed." The poet says his love is proportionate to her beauty, which mightrisk accusations of superficiality if he did not go on to express the profundity of that love inextraordinary terms which necessarily imply that her beauty must be similarly extraordinary.The final stanza makes clear that this is a poem of parting. "Farewell" means justwhat these lines say "May you fare (do) well (while I am gone). What piece of18th - century technology is he referring to in the metaphor of the last line of the thirdstanza?
e. e. cummings: "somewhere i have never travelled"
The poetry of cummings is characterized by various typographical devices, among them thehabitual avoidance of capital letters, even in the spelling of his own name (somewhatobscured in our edition by the use of small caps instead of true lower - case letters). Althoughhis satirical poems are perhaps his best known, he wrote many rhapsodic love poems as well.This is one of the best. Read it aloud to appreciate it fully, noting how you are required to readright past the end of lines at places to preserve the sense, as in the first line, where thistechnique reinforces the meaning. How does it do so? The theme is "intensefragility," delicacy combined with great strength. What kind of intimacy does he expressin the first stanza? Note the echo of "enclose" in the second stanza as"unclose." What emotional experience is being expressed here? What effect doesthe parenthesis in the last line of the second stanza have? Compare it to the words"carefully everywhere" in the next stanza. What makes "nothing which weare to perceive" stronger than "nothing I have ever perceived?""Forever" is eternity. What images of pulsating alternation, like breathing canyou find in this poem? What does it mean to say that the "voice of your eyes is deeperthan all roses"? It is conceivable that the surprising last line may have been inspired by"Blow, Western Wind." The rain has small hands (raindrops) which arenevertheless ubiquitous and powerful in their effect.
More love poems.

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