5 Famous love poems

There are as many ways to love as there are people to feel it, making love both confusing and hard to define. Luckily for us, there’s a way to find out what love meant to very different people from distant times and places – that is, through poetry. Read about 5 particularly famous poems below – would you call what they’re talking about, love?

  1. O my Luve's like a red, red rose by Robert Burns  
    1. Burns was a Scottish poet writing at the end of the eighteenth century (1794).  One of his great passions was collecting Scottish songs, and re-writing them.  Though red roses have become clichéd symbols of love, Burns doesn't dwell on them for too long.  Instead, there's a lot of imagery about extreme natural events – seas drying up, rocks melting.  Burns uses words from the Scots language too. Have a go at saying them out loud, you might feel right at home! 

          ‘As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
            So deep in luve am I;
          And I will love thee still, my Dear,
            Till a' the seas gang dry.—

      But this poem wasn't to everyone's taste – some people thought it was silly and Burns had trouble getting it published.  This might be because it uses hyperbole (exaggeration) and repetition to say that love is strong and long-lasting, which some people think’s unrealistic. What do you think?

  2. Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy 
    1. Some people believe that 'Valentine' (1993) could be a reply to Burns' 'red, red rose'. Though written hundreds of years apart, both love poems use nature to say something about human connection.  That said, Duffy begins by rejecting traditional gifts of love, starting with Burns' red rose. Instead, she compares love with an onion in an extended metaphor that lasts through the whole poem. Unlike Burns' poem, Duffy's isn't a song – it's not meant to be set to music. It doesn't rhyme, either – it's not a poem that calms you with a sweet tune about love. And the shape of the poem, some parts are very short, and there are full stops at the end of nearly every line. Do you think the poem's jagged shape, and its aim of being 'truthful' about love, might be connected?
  3. I'll overcome you by Rabindranath Tagore
    1. A world-famous Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore also shaped Indian politics and education during the twentieth century.  Like Duffy's 'Valentine', Tagore's 'I'll overcome you' (1910) says what love is not.  It mentions physical things: beauty, hands, ornaments, flowers.  But love is not these things – it's an invisible force.  Tagore's poem shows how hard it is to describe love, and how powerless it can make you feel.  Maybe this lack of power is the reason the speaker in Tagore's poem wants to 'overcome' the person he loves.  There's a big difference between the first four lines, and the last two.  Do you think the verbs – 'overcome', 'open', 'deck', 'adorn' – are promises, or wishes?

      I'll overcome you
      (Aami rupey tomai)
      Translated by Fakrul Alam 
      I'll overcome you not with my beauty but with my love
      I'll open doors not with my hands but with my love.
      I'll deck myself neither in ornaments nor with flowers
      I'll adorn your neck only with a garland made out of love
      None will know about the storm swaying my soul
      Invisibly, like the tide with the moon, you have me rolling!

  4. Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare 
    1. Sonnets had been used to write about love way before Shakespeare. They came from Italy and were picked up by English poets who admired Italian tradition. Sonnet 116 (1609) is particularly interesting as it can be read in many different ways. We never really find out know who Shakespeare was talking to. For example, what could he mean when he says a ‘marriage of true minds'?  Maybe the most difficult lines in the poem for modern readers are: ‘It is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken’. The 'wandering bark' is a ship, finding its way through the sea by looking at the stars.  The star, which represents love, was probably the Pole star. The star's 'height' was the distance between it and the horizon.  When Shakespeare was writing, the 'worth' of the stars – what they were made of – was a mystery.  Is Shakespeare saying love is mysterious, ungraspable, far away, and unreachable?  Or is he saying love is always there, even if we don't quite understand it?
  5. Love After Love by Derek Walcott  
    1. What happens when love is over?  Although Shakespeare's sonnet 116 spoke about love as something that lasts forever, we all know of examples of love coming to an end. In 'Love after Love’ (1971), Derek Walcott writes about the feeling of rediscovering what it's like to be alone, and to care for yourself, after the end of a relationship.  The poem has a lot of kind instructions – 'Give', 'Take down', 'Sit', 'Feast' – which you might say to a friend who's been through a hard time.  These short instructions make the message seem quite simple, but Walcott's poem tries to get its readers to do something that's tough in reality i.e. take care of yourself when you’re heart broken. He reassures the reader that one day ‘You will love again the stranger who was your self.’