Arguably the biggest occupational hazard of the poet is that sooner or later, your lover will request a love poem.
If you are either very cocky or very skilled, you might whip out a fountain pen and write a fitting ode upon a cocktail napkin.
But if you possess the slightest doubt about your abilities, or about the notion of "love poems" in general, you might quiver in your oxfords.
Most writers I know agree the love poem is the hardest to write. Breakup poems? Child's work. Meditations on death? No problem. Pastoral portraits and comic scenarios? They can be rendered with fair effort. But the love poem risks sentimentality, vulnerability, cliché -- and worst of all, the probability of falling short in its attempt to capture the enormity of the emotion.
For all of these reasons, love poems impress and intimidate the heck out of me. So on the eve of March, an hour before kissing February good-bye, I find myself researching the history of love poems, revisiting modern favorites and distilling some lessons from them all.
When I think of love poems, the verse that pops into my head is "roses are red / violets are blue." It's inevitable, and it makes me equate all love-y verse with shallow greeting cards. Who wants any part of that?
But as is the case with so many clichés, this flower stems from an interesting seed.
Edmund Spenser (pictured at the top) immortalized the image of red roses and blue violets in 1590 with his epic poem, The Faerie Queene:
It was upon a Sommers shynie day,
When Titan faire his beames did display,
In a fresh fountaine, farre from all mens vew,
She bath'd her brest, the boyling heat t'allay;She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowers, that in the forrest grew.
In the following stanzas, Chrysogone falls asleep in the grass and is impregnated by sunbeams, leading to the birth of faerie twins. The goddesses Venus and Diana steal the newborns. Not exactly the stuff of greeting cards!
Spenser was more concerned with supporting Queen Elizabeth I and the Reformation than writing a transcendent love poem. But the sensuality in his verse is far more inspiring than the versions that arrived centuries later.
He's also known for "Amoretti," a sonnet cycle exploring his courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. She's rendered as his practical if not unromantic counterpoint, which gives the poems a tantalizing tension. In the sonnet "One Day I Wrote her Name," Spenser writes:
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
(If you're interested in Spenser, you'll enjoy this thorough biography over at the Poetry Foundation.)
The rose is red, the violet's blue,
The honey's sweet, and so are you.
Thou are my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou'd be you.
And a hundred years after that, in 1862, the image swam the English channel to appear in Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, in which Fantine sings "violets are blue, roses are red / violets are blue, I love my loves." It sounds lovely in French, which gives us the pleasurable slant rhyme:
Les bleuets sont bleus, les roses sont roses,
Les bleuets sont bleus, j'aime mes amours.
So our Valentine cliché has an alluring literary tradition, and simply knowing that helps me embrace the love poem a little more. Next Thursday, I'll share some favorite love poems and lessons from current writers.
Until then, xo February.
Prompt: Find a love poem you admire, be it classic or modern, and determine what makes it successful. Next week - some prompts to help write one.
Images: "Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen" by Henry Fuseli (middle) and 1901 edition of Mother Goose (bottom).