April 20th: "Love Letter"

Love Letter
by Sylvia Plath

Not easy to state the change you made.
If I’m alive now, then I was dead,
Though, like a stone, unbothered by it,
Staying put according to habit.
You didn’t just toe me an inch, no–
Nor leave me to set my small bald eye
Skyward again, without hope, of course,
Of apprehending blueness, or stars.

That wasn’t it. I slept, say: a snake
Masked among black rocks as a black rock
In the white hiatus of winter–
Like my neighbors, taking no pleasure
In the million perfectly-chiseled
Cheeks alighting each moment to melt
My cheek of basalt. They turned to tears,
Angels weeping over dull natures,
But didn’t convince me. Those tears froze.
Each dead head had a visor of ice.

And I slept on like a bent finger.
The first thing I saw was sheer air
And the locked drops rising in a dew
Limpid as spirits. Many stones lay
Dense and expressionless round about.
I didn’t know what to make of it.
I shone, mica-scaled, and unfolded
To pour myself out like a fluid
Among bird feet and the stems of plants.
I wasn’t fooled. I knew you at once.

Tree and stone glittered, without shadows.
My finger-length grew lucent as glass.
I started to bud like a March twig:
An arm and a leg, an arm, a leg.
From stone to cloud, so I ascended.
Now I resemble a sort of god
Floating through the air in my soul-shift
Pure as a pane of ice. It’s a gift.


I really like the image of love as an awakening of hitherto-unknown aspects of yourself.

This would seem to be another love poem that’s more about the poet than the loved one, but for some reason this one doesn’t bug me. Is it just because it’s by a woman? I don’t think so, but I can’t articulate why it feels different. What do you think?

April 19th: "When You Are Old"

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


This is another one that’s a teeny bit self-indulgent–wow, Yeats, you were the only person to love Maud Gonne for who she really was, huh? But what I love about it is that it’s not explicitly a poem about how she’ll be sorry she didn’t love him back. It’s rather a poem about the sadness of love ending, and life going on without it. Let’s compare it to the poem it was based on, “Quand vous serez bien vieille” by Pierre Ronsard. This translation is by Anthony Weir, you can read it in the original French here:

When you are very old, at evening, by the fire,
spinning wool by candlelight and winding it in skeins,
you will say in wonderment as you recite my lines:
“Ronsard admired me in the days when I was fair.”

Then not one of your servants dozing gently there
hearing my name’s cadence break through your low repines
but will start into wakefulness out of her dreams
and bless your name – immortalised by my desire.

I’ll be underneath the ground, and a boneless shade
taking my long rest in the scented myrtle-glade,
and you’ll be an old woman, nodding towards life’s close,

regretting my love, and regretting your disdain.
Heed me, and live for now: this time won’t come again.
Come, pluck now – today – life’s so quickly-fading rose.


Yeah, I’m willing to cut Yeats some slack, seeing as how his poem is approximately ten million times less obnoxious than that. For another perspective on Yeats and Maud Gonne, see: all of Yeats’ other poetry (sorry, cheap joke, but I am particularly fond of “Among School Children” which has one of the best descriptions of love I’ve ever read), this hilarious comic by Kate Beaton, and presumably in Gonne’s own autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, unless she felt that other aspects of her life might be more important to talk about. It would probably be frustrating to live a long and full life and be a revolutionary and all that and still have everyone just want to talk about how you didn’t marry Yeats even though he asked you five times.

April 18th: "Love? Do I love?"

I read this first as a chapter epigraph in Gaudy Night. It’s great, isn’t it?


from “The Second Brother: an Unfinished Drama”
by Thomas Lovell Beddoes

…Love? Do I love? I walk
Within the brilliance of another’s thought,
As in a glory. I was dark before,
As Venus’ chapel in the black of night:
But there was something holy in the darkness,
Softer and not so thick as other where;
And, as rich moonlight may be to the blind,
Unconsciously consoling. Then love came,
Like the out-bursting of a trodden star…

April 17th: "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"

This is one of those poems you see so often it feels like cheating to post it, but I love it so much I don’t care. A word of geeky explanation (I was so excited when I learned this in history class and was able to connect it back to the poem!): the metaphors in the third and fourth verse in particular come from the old idea that the earth was at the center of the universe, and the sun, moon, planets, and each star were set in rotating crystalline spheres around it. These spheres were made, not of earth, air, fire, or water, but of a fifth, perfect element called simply “quintessence.” So everything “sublunary,” or below the moon, was physical and terrestrial, while everything past it was celestial.


A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
by John Donne

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“The breath goes now,” and some say, “No,”

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refin’d
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

April 16th: "Resignation"

by Nikki Giovanni

I love you
because the Earth turns round the sun
because the North wind blows north
because the Pope is Catholic
and most Rabbis Jewish
because winters flow into spring
and the air clears after a storm
because only my love for you
despite the charms of gravity
keeps me from falling off the Earth
into another dimension
I love you
because it is the natural order of things
I love you
like the habit I picked up in college
of sleeping through lectures
or saying I’m sorry
when I get stopped for speeding
because I drink a glass of water
in the morning
and chain-smoke cigarettes
all through the day
because I take my coffee Black
and my milk with chocolate
because you keep my feet warm
though my life a mess
I love you
because I don’t want it
any other way
I am helpless
in my love for you
It makes me so happy
to hear you call my name
I am amazed you can resist
locking me in an echo chamber
where your voice reverberates
through the four walls
sending me into spasmatic ecstasy
I love you
because it’s been so good
for so long
that if I didn’t love you
I’d have to be born again
and that is not a theological statement
I am pitiful in my love for you
The Dells tell me Love
is so simple
the thought though of you
sends indescribably delicious multitudinous
thrills throughout and through-in my body
I love you
because no two snowflakes are alike
and it is possible if you stand tippy-toe
to walk between the raindrops
I love you
because I am afraid of the dark
and can’t sleep in the light
because I rub my eyes
when I wake up in the morning
and find you there
because you with all your magic powers were
determined that
I should love you
because there was nothing for you but that
I would love you
I love you
because you made me
want to love you
more than I love my privacy
my freedom my commitments
and responsibilities
I love you ’cause I changed my life
to love you
because you saw me one friday
afternoon and decided that I would
love you
I love you I love you I love you

April 15th: "This Living Hand"

This Living Hand
by John Keats

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.


Keats is another self-centered poet, although you can hardly blame a very young man dying of tuberculosis in the same house as his never-to-be-wife for being bitter, jealous, and self-pitying: “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks,” he wrote to his girlfriend, Fanny Brawne, “your loveliness and the hour of my death.” Can we say emo? How about creepy?

Because of this kind of talk, poor Fanny was reviled by generations of literary critics and Keats biographers…but her own letters were all burnt on Keats’ death, so it was a very one-sided story. Recent scholarship suggests she probably loved him and did her best (one essay I read said, “She may even had had some appreciation for his poetry,” which cracked me up).

So Keats was not ideal boyfriend material (he was also kind of a misogynist), but I don’t care! I still have a huge crush on him and his poetry is my favorite among the Romantics. This one in particular is intensely powerful and chilling. I love the combination of bitterness and resentment with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation, the incredible way he’s captured the horror of death and the conflicting impulses of the heart.

Poetry is sexy.

April 14th: "We Talk of Taxes, and I Call You Friend"

I love the combination of cynicism and sincere passion in this one. Compare “Love is not all: it is not meat or drink” by the same author, brought to my attention by alert reader Cecilia Grant.


We Talk of Taxes, and I Call You Friend
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

We talk of taxes, and I call you friend;
Well, such you are,—but well enough we know
How thick about us root, how rankly grow
Those subtle weeds no man has need to tend,
That flourish through neglect, and soon must send
Perfume too sweet upon us and overthrow
Our steady senses; how such matters go
We are aware, and how such matters end.
Yet shall be told no meagre passion here;
With lovers such as we forevermore
Isolde drinks the draught, and Guinevere
Receives the Table’s ruin through her door,
Francesca, with the loud surf at her ear,
Lets fall the colored book upon the floor.


Do you have a favorite pessimistic poem about the beginning of a relationship? (Yes I realize that’s rather specific, but I bet there are lots of them out there.)

April 13th: "I Heard You Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ"

I Heard You Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ
by Walt Whitman

I heard you solemn-sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday morn I pass’d the church,
Winds of autumn, as I walk’d the woods at dusk I heard your long-stretch’d sighs up above so mournful,
I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
Heart of my love! you too I heard murmuring low through one of the wrists around my head,
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little bells last night under my ear.

April 11th: "In Memoriam A.H.H."

A tragic one today, from “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Tennyson. The whole poem is one of the saddest, most beautiful things I’ve ever read–if you’re interested, you can find the rest of it here.


Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more–
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

April 8th: Childe Harold's Pilgrimage excerpt

Here’s one that isn’t a love poem at all. But it’s about love, and while it’s sort of gratuitously, melodramatically negative and cynical in the best Byron style, I think it captures something essential to the experience–that hatred and resentment you can only feel for someone you’ve been (or are) in a relationship with.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, verse CXXV.
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

Few–none–find what they love or could have loved,
Though accident, blind contact, and the strong
Necessity of loving, have removed
Antipathies–but to recur, ere long,
Envenom’d with irrevocable wrong.