by Briana Gonzalez
A popular trope in many romance stories is, of course, poetry. It’s undeniable; there is something very compelling about a character being moved to artistic invention by their desire for their love interest. (Bonus points if the character writing the poetry calls their lover their “muse”.) If none of your characters are the types to go about penning sonnets and limericks, another well-loved facet of the poetry trope is the recitation of poems that already exist. The more flowery the language (and incidentally, the more dead the poet), the more romantic it is.
Sometimes using poetry in a work lends to the tragic themes found in an ill-fated love story, as does the use of Emily Dickinson’s “Ample Make This Bed” does in the film Sophie’s Choice or John Keats’ “Bright star, were I as steadfast as thou art” in the biographical movie detailing his romance with Fanny Brawne, the subject of the poem. Other times a poem can be a catalyst for romantic fulfillment, as in 10 Things I Hate About You when Kat Stratford recites her version of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 141 in order to confess her love to Heath Ledger… I mean, Patrick.
The idea here is that poetry, when used as a motif, is often invoked as a representation of passion, a kind of elevated declaration when intimate feelings are too profound for simple dialogue. If you’re interested in using romantic poetry in your own writing, I invite you to take a gander at some of the most passionate poets and lovers in history, if their works are anything to go by.
Perhaps one of the best known Greek poets, Sappho is famous for her lyric poetry — and for her love of women. The following excerpt is from the poem “Sappho to her girlfriends”, created by combining several fragments of her work.
"This is my fair girl-garden: sweet they grow —
Rose, violet, asphodel and lily's snow;
And which the sweetest is, I do not know;
For rosy arms and starry eyes are there.
Honey-sweet voices and cheeks passing fair.
And these shall men, I ween, remember long;
For these shall bloom for ever in my song."
Federico Garcia Lorca
Deeply inspired by musical forms and Spanish folklore culminating in disarming, avant-garde work, Garcia Lorca is a classic “tortured artist” type, whose romantic exploits often included other such artist types, and so were disastrous and heartbreaking. (All the better for inspiration, right?) His poem “To find a kiss of yours” relates the splendor of nature to the yearning one feels for a lover.
"To find a kiss of yours
what would I give
A kiss that strayed from your lips
dead to love
My lips taste
the dirt of shadows
To gaze at your dark eyes
what would I give
Dawns of rainbow garnet
fanning open before God—
The stars blinded them
one morning in May
And to kiss your pure thighs
what would I give
Raw rose crystal
sediment of the sun"
This Chinese poet is famous for her love poems, many of which were written in the ci tradition, a type of lyric poetry in the Chinese Classical style. It is said that Wu Tsao’s songs were sung all over China during the nineteenth century. (It’s no wonder — they’re gorgeous.) Wu Tsao’s tended to be dedicated to her lady lovers, such the poem “For the Courtesan Ch’ing Lin”, excerpted below:
“You glow like a perfumed lamp
In the gathering shadows.
We play wine games
And recite each other’s poems.
Then you sing ‘Remembering South of the River’
With its heart breaking verses. Then
We paint each other’s beautiful eyebrows.
I want to possess you completely –
Your jade body
And your promised heart.
It is Spring.
Vast mists cover the Five Lakes.
My dear, let me buy a red painted boat
And carry you away.”
In a particularly romantic plot twist, this poet is actually two poets. Michael Field is a pseudonym used by two British poets, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who were so devoted to one another that they used one name as a representation of their inseparability. Field’s work was mostly comprised of Bradley and Cooper’s love poems to one another (and to their dog, Wym Chow; talk about puppy love, huh?) Their overwhelming affection shines through in the following passage from “Power in Silence”.
“She has the star’s own pulse; its throbbing
Is a quick light.
She is a dove
My soul draws to its breast; her sobbing
Is for the warm dark there!
In the heat of her wings I would not care
My close-housed bird should take her flight
To magnify our love.”
Whitman has become synonymous with American poetry (so much so that I actually performed in a devised play about his legacy and his influence on the tradition… there were puppets.) His work is known for free verse and breaking the boundaries of poetic form. It makes sense, then, that his love poems, such as “To A Stranger”, would be transcendent and ethereal.
“Passing stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again, I am to see to it that I do not lose you.”
Self-described as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, Lorde’s poetry covers much more than just romantic love. As an activist, her work revolves around a multitude of subjects related to civil rights and feminism, in addition to lesbianism, blackness, and the female identity, and how each of these things intersect. Lorde boasts a masterful power over a whole spectrum of emotions, and her love poems are as evocative as the rest of her work, as seen in this section from “On a Night of the Full Moon”, which speaks to a kind of fragile, yet heady desire.
“And I would be the moon
spoken over your beckoning flesh
breaking against reservations
my hands at your high tide
over and under inside you
and the passing of hungers
the moon speaks
judging your roundness
Considered one of the leading figures in the Romantic movement, it is impossible not to link Byron with the word “passion”. The “Byronic Hero” figure in literature is based on him and his characteristics, including, amongst others, “great talent; great passion… being thwarted in love by social constraint or death”. For all the lovers that he took, it shouldn’t be a surprise that his poetry is, to use modern terminology, swoon-worthy. In just a few lines, the final stanza of his poem “Stanzas for Music” embodies near obsessive devotion.
“One sigh of thy sorrow, one look of thy love,
Shall turn me or fix, shall reward or reprove;
And the heartless may wonder at all I resign—
Thy lip shall reply, not to them, but to mine.”
About the Author: I'm Briana Gonzalez, word nerd and card-carrying theatre kid. Writing is just a more accessible form of talking, so it's no wonder I can't stop doing it. Check out my lit blog on Instagram @what_that_book_do!