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.

Using these study guides

Shakespeare: "Sonnet XXX"

What sorts of things does the poet say he thinks of during his "sessions of sweet silent thought?" Why do both pleasant and unpleasant memories make him unhappy? "Waste" is used here in meaning "passing away, using up." If death is compared to night, it is permanent, and the passage of time means nothing, hence it is "dateless." "Tell" is used in this poem in its old sense of "count." Notice that there is a financial metaphor that runs through this sonnet. Explain what these financial references mean. How do the final two lines reveal the real point of the poem? What effect does it produce to have postponed 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 stereotypical metaphors for women's beautiful features. What are the usual stereotypes, and how does he reverse or modify them? "Ow'st" means "ownest" or "own," "possess." "This" in the last line refers to this sonnet itself. What is the poet saying about his own power? Is this a flattering poem? Why or why 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 which may be steered by (a sailor would sight such a star's altitude to aid in locating his ship's position on the sea, specifically the north star, Polaris), but its true nature is far beyond ordinary human knowledge. The sickle or scythe of time is a traditional symbol of death, or its approach. What two unlikely/impossible things does the poet compare to the possibility of his being wrong about love?

Edmund Waller: "Song"

Here is yet another in the long series of European poems ranging back to antiquity which compare young women to flowers and urge them to make the best of their youthful beauty by making love before they wither and grow unattractive (carpe diem). By the Renaissance, the standard flower for this purpose had become the rose. Waller creates an interesting variation on the usual theme by addressing himself directly to the rose, telling it to bear his message to the woman he admires. "Resemble" in the fourth line means "compare." To "waste" can mean to "waste away," or diminish, as well as having the obvious sense. What quality in the young woman is the poet reproving? 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, it is 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 of repentance ("rueing") is urged in the next to the last line of this stanza? In the second stanza the poet urges a romantic retreat to the shadows from the sun's "fiery arrows." Even though in this stanza the poet sees an element of nature (the sun) as the enemy of love, unlike in the first stanza, he still manages to associate nature with sexual urges in the last line. Explain. "Wastes" has the meaning of "is being wasted" or "is passing away." "Hie" simply means "go." "Dying" alludes to the threat of death by love-longing, but probably also bears the Renaissance meaning "to experience orgasm." The final stanza is somewhat ambiguous. Like many other such verses, it could be only a piece of flattery telling a woman she has no need of make-up or fancy clothes to enhance her natural beauty; but it probably also means: "don't put your clothes on!" Note the reference to Cypris=Venus. The statement that lilies "desire no beauties but their own" is a daring reference to Matthew 6:28: "And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies 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's impious/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 same old "let's do it now before it's too late;" but the world-ranging sweep of the imagery and the marvelous language give it an intoxicating power which is fully apparent only when it is read aloud, especially the conclusion. Like Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII, this is at 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 the threat of oncoming death to pressure a reluctant woman; but here the imagery of death is so powerful that the poem transcends the clichéd "lines" of more frivolous writers to become a stirring meditation on the importance of living fully during the brief span allotted us.

Stanza 1: "World enough and time" has become a catch phrase, drawn from this poem and used in a variety of contexts. The first two lines mean "If we had enough time, your reluctance wouldn't be a crime." The Humber is a British river, very far indeed from the Ganges; so the lovers would be extremely separated. The Biblical deluge, the Flood referred to here, was often used as a convenient demarcation setting off the most ancient 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 have loved her, all the way down to the present. Christians believed that the Jews would be converted at the Second Coming of Christ, at the end of the world. So these lines essentially say, "if I could live so long, I would love you from the beginning to the end of time." Vegetables do not move as quickly as animals; their growth is gradual. What advantages 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 across the sky. What does it mean to "hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near" at one's back? Why is the future a desert? Whereas Shakespeare boasted that his poetry would preserve 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 both sarcastic and harsh, but undeniably realistic. A Fine and Private Place has been used as a book title by several authors, notably Peter S. Beagle.

Stanza 3: "Transpires" means "perspires:" the sweat of passion is as precious and fleeting as morning dew. To "sport" is to make love. The comparison of lovers to courting birds is familiar, but what does Marvell achieve by comparing his lovers to "birds of prey ?" "Slow-chapt" means "slow-jawed," or "slowly chewing." Rather than allowing themselves to 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 after them.

Christopher Marlowe: "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"

Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare and an important playwright, here indulges in typical escapist Renaissance Arcadian imagery. "Prove" here has the sense of "try out," "experience." A "kirtle" is a sort of sleeveless over-dress. Myrtle was especially associated with Venus. Note how he combines precious materials unlikely to be within the grasp of a shepherd 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 to have 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 a reputation for cynicism which is well reflected in this witty reply to Marlowe's poem. List the objections that the nymph makes to the shepherd's invitation in your own language. Philomel is the nightingale. The image in "wanton fields/To wayward winter reckoning yields" is a sexual one of summer's beauty being ravished and wasted by the despoliation of winter. Gall is notoriously bitter-tasting. "Fancy" is "imagination." What is the one thing the nymph says would make his invitation appealing?

Ben Jonson: "Song: To Celia"

What substitutes for toasts of wine does the poet suggest? Why does he say a mere material drink 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 a heavenly nectar far finer than any earthly wine. "Late" means "recently." How does Jonson make a surprising and interesting switch on the usual rose/beauty theme (as illustrated above in Waller's "Song")? Explain how he 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 as uniformly faithless. Its cynicism is, however, masked in beautiful language. It lists a number of marvelous or impossible things and then compares them to that rarest of beings: a faithful woman. How does the conclusion of the poem reject the possibility of such a creature even more strongly than the earlier lines? It was believed that mandrake roots could be transformed into human beings through magic, mostly because they sometimes looked vaguely like a human body. "Fair" means "beautiful," so the poet is saying that no woman can be both beautiful and faithful. Why do you think men have been so anxious to portray women as faithless?

Anonymous: "Western Wind"

This is a hauntingly beautiful song whose melody became the basis for John Taverner's Western Wind Mass. It appeals to modern readers because of its combination of passionate directness and mystery, partly caused by the antiquated language. The Western wind brings the 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 make the conclusion especially powerful? Explain why this might be read as a traveler's or sailor's song.

Emily Dickinson: "Alter! When the Hills Do"

Although at first glance the exclamations in this poem might seem to be addressed to someone 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 metaphors drawn from nature? Dickinson habitually used dashes for all manner of punctuation, a feature 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 written by this woman who led a very sheltered and outwardly uneventful life. Her inner life was obviously passionate, however restrained her actions may have been. This poem on the triumph of love over death is especially striking. The first stanza uses a scientific metaphor to express the idea that her love can penetrate even the darkness of death. A prism breaks up visible light into a spectrum, but she is aware of the invisible ultraviolet. Even the passage of time cannot dim her love. "Its little panels" are the little windows of a miner's lamp. 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 being rediscovered. She stressed the passionate longing for intense experience characteristic of many young people in that period. In this poem she addresses herself to her wildly pounding heart. The third stanza implies there is no good reason for these palpitations; what is in fact causing them? What does it mean that "he" has entered her eyes but not her heart? 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 who tried to revive Medieval themes in the Victorian age. How can we tell that the person she is addressing is dead? The dream of their love should have ended in both lovers "awakening" in Heaven together, but she has outlived her beloved. 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 for centuries or even spend her whole life waiting? "Van Diemen's land" is an old name 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 poems by the ailing Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her beloved Robert, one of the most distinguished 19th-century poets. Their love story is a famous one, often retold in fiction, and on the stage and screen. This is her most best-known. Like many Victorian writers she uses religious language 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 she can grope toward in search of God. What effect does the sudden drop down to daily ordinariness have on the poem? Does it make us think less of her love? She was writing during a period which democratic revolutions were sweeping across Europe, and it is natural for 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 former sorrows, the simple surety of childhood, and her former religious beliefs. Like Medieval Italian 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 countless paintings, plays, and operas. Together he and the novelist Sir Walter Scott imposed an English stamp on the art, literature and music of a whole era. Europeans had traditionally praised blonde, light-skinned women as the most beautiful. In this poem Byron celebrates dark beauty. England lacks a "cloudless clime;" what sort of land do you suppose would 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 in our book with a picture of a blonde.) How does he make precise his argument that her coloring is perfect? Although darkness and night were often associated with evil, he affirms that 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 of it is meant to be sung. "Sprung" means "opened" or "blossomed." The poet says his love is proportionate to her beauty, which might risk accusations of superficiality if he did not go on to express the profundity of that love in extraordinary 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 just what these lines say "May you fare (do) well (while I am gone). What piece of 18th-century technology is he referring to in the metaphor of the last line of the third stanza?

e. e. cummings: "somewhere i have never travelled"

The poetry of cummings is characterized by various typographical devices, among them the habitual avoidance of capital letters, even in the spelling of his own name (somewhat obscured in our edition by the use of small caps instead of true lower-case letters). Although his 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 read right past the end of lines at places to preserve the sense, as in the first line, where this technique reinforces the meaning. How does it do so? The theme is "intense fragility," delicacy combined with great strength. This is an unusual love poem in two ways, in that it's a man rather than a woman being compared to a rose, and that "openness" is being applied here to a man rather than to a woman, obviously more in an emotional than physical sense. What kind of intimacy does he express in the first stanza? Note the echo of "enclose" in the second stanza as "unclose." What emotional experience is being expressed here? What effect does the 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 we are to perceive" stronger than "nothing I have ever perceived?" "Forever" is eternity. What images of pulsating alternation, like breathing can you find in this poem? What does it mean to say that the "voice of your eyes is deeper than 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 are nevertheless ubiquitous and powerful in their effect.

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This page has been accessed times since June 6, 1997. Last revised November 14, 2005.