Featured Poem: “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson

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Image by gnav from Pixabay

The great South African cleric, theologian, and activist, Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” To say that the last two months have spelled dark times for mankind is an understatement. With most countries under strict lockdown and the global economy sliding towards a worldwide recession, with so many people sick or starving or both, times like these make it difficult to even muster a sliver of hope. And yet these are the moments when we need hope the most.  Hope is what will make it possible for us to put one foot in front of the other, to persevere and stand resilient in the face of utter chaos and uncertainty.

So today, I would like to write about Hope. Or, more accurately, I would like to write about the poem “Hope” is the thing with feathers by the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. This is one of my favorite pieces from Dickinson, and it’s one that I hope would bring a spot of brightness to your day.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
By: EMILY DICKINSON

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

The Bird’s-Eye View: A Brief Background on “Hope” is the thing with feathers

That Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) is one of America’s most noted and influential poets of all time is indisputable. The poet was a maverick. She wasn’t afraid to go against the flow of literary trends. At a time when her contemporaries were throwing themselves into creating lengthy, grand, and dramatic pieces—Dickinson pared down her details without sacrificing her message and metaphors. She also had no qualms playing around with punctuations and capitalizations—as you no doubt saw in her poem above.

Another noticeable facet of Dickinson’s writings is the lack of titles. Now, before we go any further with this, it’s important to note that most of the poet’s writings were discovered and published after her death. A lot of the poems didn’t have titles, so editors and publishers went with the poem’s first line.

In the case of our featured poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers, the lack of title may have been deliberate. The piece was written and compiled in 1861/1862 in Dickinson’s hand-sewn Fascicle 13, and published posthumously in the 1891 collection called Poems by Emily Dickinson.

Style, Structure, and Punctuation

Like most of Emily Dickinson’s other works, “Hope” is the thing with feathers is a three-stanza lyric poem that’s written in first person. Though with the way the poem is structured, only using “I” and “me” once throughout the piece, the persona takes a backseat to her subject. She is simply narrating, stating facts.

Each line is said with certainty and conviction—“Hope” is the thing with feathers – that perches on the soul.” And the first-person perspective is used only in testament to these “facts.” As if the narrator is saying, “I know this to be true! I know this from experience,” because I’ve heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea. She is telling us a story but in a rather distant fashion, opting to shine the spotlight fully on Hope and not herself.

Another notable feature of the poem is its incredible readability, or rather read-out-loudability. Like the often-recited “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley,  “Hope” is a poem that shines brightest when read out loud. Now, the secret to this lies in the poem’s clever structure. See, “Hope” is the thing with feathers uses alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter to lend the poem its appealing cadence or rhythm (the da-dum quality of its words). It also has a basic ABCB rhyme scheme that translates well to pleasant reading.

As for the poem’s punctuation, I think unconventional is an apt descriptor for Dickinson’s unusual capitalization of common nouns and liberal use of dashes. Let’s start with the capitalization. The common nouns capitalized in the poem are as follows: Gale, Bird, Sea, and Extremity. Now, it’s apparent that the words were chosen to emphasize certain points in the poem.

When Dickinson says And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –, she is referring to how hope often appears during the hardest times. When she drops the word Bird in the second stanza, it’s actually the first time she’s putting a name to her metaphor for hope. And when she says I’ve heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea, aside from giving us lovely and contrasting imagery, it’s as if she’s also telling us that hope springs wherever and whenever it’s most needed. Lastly, the capitalization of Extremity serves to emphasize the final line of the poem, (never)… It asked a crumb – of me.

And finally, it’s time to tackle the dashes. For a very short poem, “Hope” has a ridiculous number of dashes—fifteen in total! Now, Dickinson uses the dash liberally and deliberately for two reasons. The first is to emphasize a point or a word. Case in point, in the penultimate line, the word never is highlighted by the dashes that enclose it.  The second reason is for caesura—or to create breaks for the poem’s reader. Much like the way Derek Walcott uses line breaks in Love After Love to create pause points, Dickinson uses dashes to give the reader time to breathe and take in the words.

Poetry Analysis: “Hope” in the Tempest

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

The first line says it all— “Hope” is the thing with feathers is a poem that uses the image of a Bird to describe the qualities of Hope. While it takes an entire stanza for Emily Dickinson to explicitly say bird, the descriptions she uses all but spells it out for the reader. As you can see in the first stanza, the thing the poet describes has feathers, perches, and can wring out a pretty tune. So, the metaphor is easy enough to grasp. However, what the poet does leave out is the type of avian friend we’re facing. Not that it really matters—a change in bird won’t alter the poem’s tune—but some people do think that the bird could be a white dove. This makes sense as the dove is often used in Christian imagery to signify hope.

Now, when Dickinson describes Hope as something that perches in the soul, she tells us where the emotion blooms and resides—in the heart and not as a product of pure rationalization. While the lines about singing the tune without the words and never stopping tells us about the insuppressible and maybe even unreasonable nature of hope. One can have hope even when the odds are stacked far too high for a positive outcome. The feeling is hardly ever ‘logical’ or controllable.

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

Apart from the metaphor of the bird, Dickinson also utilizes seafaring imagery to illustrate the harsh conditions that Hope is able to weather. The words gale and storm appear in the second stanza as situations that try to abash (deflate, humble, or humiliate) Hope. But the little Bird is far stronger than it appears. It will continue its song amidst trouble and thunderstorms. Hope remains constant even when the prospects are dim. It is capable of providing each of us with warmth, comfort, and much-needed reassurance.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

It is here, in the final stanza, that Dickinson uses the words “I” and “me.” As mentioned in an earlier paragraph, the use of these words read like a testimony. It tells us that the narrator knows about the nature of Hope firsthand, because she has heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea. She tells us that in spite of everything Hope has given her, it has – never – in Extremity… asked a crumb – of me. These last two lines tell us that the persona may need and receive Hope, but that the feeling has never wanted or needed anything from her—not a morsel of acknowledgment or even a crumb of encouragement.  It persists almost independent from one’s reasonings.

A possible nod to Noah’s Ark

At the risk of over-reaching, I was thinking of how the use of seafaring words in the text – things like “Gale,” “Sea,” “Storm,” and “Land” – seem to conjure images of surviving a tempest at sea. If you close your eyes and let Dickinson’s words wash over you, you can imagine being stuck in a ship or a boat while a storm rages on and threatens to upend your vehicle.  With the elements so outside of your control, the only thing keeping you sane is the irrational but unsinkable hope you have for safe passage and survival.

Now, I’m not sure if the imagery was meant to be biblical, but if we go with the theme of the dark and rough seas, you have to admit that there’s something about the poem that harks back to the story of Noah’s Ark. The dire situation, the unending storm, and the bird that carried in its wings the hope of an entire people—these are all elements of the biblical account. Again, I don’t think this was necessarily something that Dickinson had planned out but I still think it is good food for thought.

Featured Poem: Invictus by William Ernest Henley

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Image by: Johnny Lindner from Pixabay

Invictus
By William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
my head is bloody but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged the punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

 

Never underestimate the transformative power of a well-crafted poem. Some poems are cathartic. They have the power to move their readers to tears or to laughter, melancholia or euphoria.  Others offer sensible life advice under the guise of metaphors and sweeping or epic imageries. They offer life lessons without getting too direct or didactic. But rarest and most precious of all, are the poems that inspire dramatic and lasting perspective and change. These are the poems that change lives and bolster the human spirit.

William Ernest Henley’s eminently popular work Invictus is the embodiment of life-changing poetry. It is a poem that has inspired some of the greatest minds in history. In his September 1941 speech at the House of Commons, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of the imminent threat of World War II. During the speech, he affirmed the strength and resilience of his constituents, paraphrasing the final two lines of Invictus with the famous statement, “We are still masters of our fate. We are still captains of our souls.”

And, of course, there’s also the unforgettable anecdote about the late, great South African leader Nelson Mandela. During his long imprisonment in Robben Island, Nelson Mandela recited the poem to his fellow prisoners to help raise their flagging spirits. Mandela, himself, had pulled great strength from the rousing words of W.E. Henley.

Invictus, with its timeless and universal theme of resilience and indomitability in the face of hardship and near-certain defeat, has deeply resonated with many of the world’s most memorable leaders. And it continues to inspire its readers today. Its acknowledgment of human suffering and assertion of humanity’s inner strength makes Invictus one of the most powerful and inspirational poems to have ever been written.

The birth of Invictus 

Before we get to the meat of the analysis, here’s a background on the poem’s title and its writer, William Ernest Henley.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Invictus is a Latin adjective used to describe something or someone that is “unconquerable, unsubdued, or invincible.” The word combines the prefix in, meaning not, and victus, from the word vincere, meaning “to conquer or overcome.” Looking at W.E. Henley’s life, it becomes apparent that the poem Invictus arose from the poet’s own experiences.

See, William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) knew a thing or two about suffering and fighting for survival. When he was just twelve years old, the poet was diagnosed with Bone Tuberculosis, a rare form of the disease that affected the skeletal system. Abscesses would form around lesions on bones, and draining these growths meant undergoing an excruciatingly painful process that Henley had to endure for many years.

By the late 1860s, the TB had progressed to the point where his left leg had to be amputated. And the disease would’ve taken his right one too, had Henley not contested the procedure. In a bid to save his right leg, he enlisted the help of the esteemed 19th-century surgeon, Joseph Lister. The treatment plan was successful, but the road to Henley’s recovery remained long and painful. W.E. Henley was confined in a hospital from 1873-1875. During this period, he wrote numerous poems about his ordeal—many of which were published in a book aptly called In Hospital.

Invictus, written in 1875, was supposed to be a part of the poetry collection, but for some reason, the 16-line masterpiece didn’t quite make the cut. The poem was eventually published in 1888 as a part of Henley’s Book of Verses.

Structure and Tone

Note: Now, there’s no mention of the sex of the speaker, but for the purpose of this analysis, I’m going to base it on Henley and just go with he/him.

Have you ever noticed how some poems just read beautifully? There’s a simplicity and balance to their structure, a smooth, almost predictable flow of rhymes and internal rhythms that translate well in readings. For me, Invictus isn’t just one of the most motivational poems in history, it’s also one of the best-sounding ones. Case in point, here’s a link to an audio recording of Morgan Freeman reading Invictus.

Aside from its wonderful message of human integrity and resolve, a part of what makes Invictus such a gorgeous piece is how tight and well-crafted the poem is. Its structure seems simple enough. Invictus is basically a four-stanza poem composed of quatrains (four lines per stanza). Each stanza follows an ABAB rhyme scheme, or an ABAB (me, pole, be, soul), CDCD (circumstance, aloud, chance, bowed), EFEF (tears, shade, years, afraid), GHGH (gate, scroll, fate, soul) scheme if we were to be more specific. This rhyme scheme creates natural pause points for the reader.

But, for me, what really makes the poem such an aural treat is its use of iambic tetrameter, almost like a metronome, to give the words a rhythmic da-dum-da-dum-da-dum sound. Try reading the poem out loud and you’ll see what I mean.

As for the tone of the work, we see a curious mix of both gravitas and optimism in each stanza. The first line of each stanza is a telling of despair, an acknowledgment of pain and suffering. While the latter lines are usually affirmations of the persona’s inner strength, determination, and courage. This is a pattern that continues throughout the work. It’s as if the persona is telling us that despite everything that’s happening, he is ready to face each challenge with courage and resilience.

Notice also how the work is written in first person and present tense. Aside from breathing life into each line, this technique also makes it easier for the readers to put themselves into the persona’s shoes. And with themes as universal as bravery, dignity, invincibility, and rising above adversity, it’s a poem that most of mankind can identify with.

Further analysis of Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole…

The first two lines of the poem establish the bleak situation or mood that the persona finds himself in. He speaks of night, a darkness that is so hellish (the pit) that it blankets everything in sight. Now, based on this description, we can infer that the speaker is using this darkness/night as a metaphor for feelings of helplessness, desolation, hopelessness, or even depression. But instead of dwelling or surrendering to these feelings, he opts to look at things in a different light. He goes:

I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.

The word thank brings to mind both choice and action. The persona is actively choosing to feel gratitude and hope despite being mired in a dire situation. But notice the curious way he expresses his gratitude. He expresses thanks to whatever gods may be—a statement that seems to indicate the possibility of a higher power or a number of higher powers, but not the certainty. In short, it’s a line that hints at the speaker’s possible agnosticism. And if we look at the quality that he’s thankful for, his unconquerable soul, the last two lines can also be interpreted as more of a declaration of the persona’s indomitability rather than a mere articulation of thanks.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

This pattern of recounting the negative aspects of life followed by an assertion of the persona’s unbroken spirit continues in the second stanza. Here we see the persona speak of the cruel nature of existence—the fell clutch of circumstance and the bludgeonings of chance—as terrible events that occur outside of his control. The use of the word bludgeoning, brings to mind the idea of feeling beaten down by life. And yet, while such events may be unavoidable, what he can and does control is how he reacts to them.

He tells us, I have not winced nor cried aloud… My head is bloody, but unbowed. He may not have escaped such tragedies unscathed, but he refuses to be bogged down by these experiences. This stanza actually reminds me of something I read on W.E. Henley’s Wikipedia page. According to his brother, every time Henley had to undergo the draining of the abscesses in his joints—a very painful procedure, to be sure—Henley would try to mask the pain he was feeling. After each session, he would “Hop about the room, laughing loudly and playing with zest to pretend he was beyond the reach of pain.”

If anything, this anecdote shows us how personal the poem is to Henley. And when he speaks about a place of wrath and tears in the third stanza, one can imagine that the poet/persona is referring to both life and the hospital—a place that is often steeped with anguish, pain, and suffering.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

The second line in this stanza, Looms but the Horror of the shade, is also possibly a reference to facing one’s mortality. But again, these years of suffering or menace have not been enough to break the persona/poet. And just as sure as he has faced these trials with courage and defiance, he assures the reader that any challenges he will face in the future will be met with the same resoluteness. These challenges shall find him unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The poem then reaches its climax in the final stanza. Here, Henley borrows a concept from the New Testament of the King James Version of the Bible. The line It matters not how strait the gate appears to be a response to Matthew 7:13-14, which says:

Enter ye at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and there be few that find it.

This biblical passage tells us that to get to heaven, we need to walk the narrow path (the good path).  The next line, How charged with punishments the scroll, also appears to allude to the religious idea of our sins being weighed when we enter the afterlife. The tally on the scroll will determine where we go—heaven or hell.

And yet, what the persona in Invictus tells us is that these things don’t matter to him. He will not let such standards determine the course of his life. He will not bow to life’s hardships, nor would he be swayed by other people’s criteria. He says finally and definitively these iconic lines, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

Featured Poem: The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

Fishing Boat

(Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay )

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” Now, I am not prone to literary chills, but I do know a thing or two about feeling overwhelmed when one encounters truly wonderful art.

One poem, in particular, never fails to evoke a visceral reaction from me—and that’s The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve read this poem so many times, but with each reading, I still find myself inexplicably choked up and teary-eyed. The lines, “He didn’t fight./He hadn’t fought at all,” just gets to me every time.

It’s a beautiful poem rife with riveting imagery and layers of meaning. I can only hope that this analysis will do it some justice.

A Brief Background on Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is one of the most celebrated American poets in history. She began her long and illustrious career in 1946 at the publication of her first book of poems, North & South. The book, which won the Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry, showcased Bishop’s exceptional writing style—a fine mixture of in-depth and eloquent prose coupled with guarded, almost detached storytelling.

At a time when confessional poetry was on the rise, Bishop stood out as a writer who could write about personal experience while maintaining a certain ‘distance’ from the work. Opting to draw the reader in through meticulous and vivid description, providing visuals so good you can picture and feel the moment, while also maintaining a level of neutrality and objectivity in the narrative. This is something we see clearly in one of her most well-known works, The Fish.

Style and Tone

Written in free verse and first-person, The Fish consists of seventy-six lines. While the poem itself is highly descriptive, each line is made deliberately brief, allowing the eye to linger and process the details of the poem and the intricacies of the fish’s anatomy. The narrator somehow fades into the background. Though it is her voice that we hear and her actions that set the scene—I caught/I thought/I looked/I admired/I saw/I stared/I let the fish go—there is undeniable impartiality to her tone.

We are left to infer how the persona feels about the fish and why she would let such a prize catch swim away. I believe this is intentional. By maintaining some level of distance, our narrator allows us to focus on the fish and to commiserate with its plight. We are given the opportunity to put ourselves in the fisherwoman’s shoes. To see through her eyes why this fish is different, why it deserves to live, without overtly directing us to the answer.

The occasional dash provides an even bigger pause point for the reader, conveying the natural cadence and interruptions of a person’s speech and thought, or rather, afterthought process. This, along with Bishop’s use of alliteration (backed, packed/breathing in, terrible oxygen/caught, fought), repetition (wallpaper, gills, rusted, and rainbow), and internal rhymes, creates a rhythmic and almost musical reading experience.

Further analysis of The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

The poem begins with a straightforward statement—I caught a tremendous fish. In a way, it almost sounds like a brag. It’s as if the persona is telling us with pride that this is a special fish, a prize catch. She goes through the motions of pulling the fish up to reel it into her boat. Then, the tone quickly shifts and slides into mild confusion. He didn’t fight./He hadn’t fought at all.

Now, the reader doesn’t need to be a seasoned fisherman/woman to understand that this isn’t normal behavior for caught fish. Normally, a fish would instinctively thrash and resist its being pulled out of water. But this fish was different. He simply hung a grunting weight, as if it were resigned to its fate. The lack of fight in the fish pushes the fisherwoman to closely inspect her catch.

She first notices its age. This fish was no youngling. She describes the fish as being battered, venerable, and homely, with brown skin like ancient wallpaper, speckled with barnacles and even infested with sea-lice. Notice the curious word she uses to describe the fish—venerable, which means esteemed and revered. Somehow, in her observations, the tone had shifted to awe. Even as she speaks of its frightening gills, its coarse white flesh packed in like feathers, its shiny entrails, and eyes that don’t look so much as simply tip into the light, the persona has already begun to identify with the fish. To see it, not as a catch, but as a living, breathing being, much like herself.

It is when the persona begins to admire the fish’s jaw—grim, weaponlike, but also aching—that Bishop heavily hints at the deciding factor for the fisherwoman—why she let the fish go. In painful detail, she describes the five old pieces of fish-line embedded firmly in the fish’s mouth. She likens them to medals or a five-haired beard of wisdom, thereby conjuring images of a weathered warrior or veteran. This was a fish who had fought time and again for its survival. The fact that it seemed to have finally given up now doesn’t make the realization less poignant. If anything, it heightens the relatability of this poor, battered creature. (For who among us haven’t felt bogged down and beaten by life at times?)

In that shining moment, the fish ceases to simply be somebody’s trophy or the catch of the day. The persona sees it for what it really is—a survivor. A creature that deserves her respect, admiration, and mercy. She identifies with the fish, for its story is a lot like that of mankind’s. A long and painful struggle to stay alive.

Bishop describes this moment of realization as something overwhelming. She writes about how spilt oil, a common occurrence in fishing boats, transforms into something spectacular—Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! The moment is so powerful that the persona finds herself unable to do anything but bow to this newfound awareness and simply let the fish go.

The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
And held him beside the boat
Half out of water with my hook
Fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
Battered and venerable
And homely. Here and there
His brown skin hung in strips
Like ancient wallpaper,
And its pattern of darker brown
Was like wallpaper:
Shapes like full-blown roses
Stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
Fine rosettes of lime,
And infested
With tiny white sea-lice,
And underneath two or three
Rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
The terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
Fresh and crisp with blood,
That can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
Packed in like feathers,
The big bones and the little bones,
The dramatic reds and blacks
Of his shiny entrails,
And the pink swim-bladder
Like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
Which were far larger than mine
But shallower, and yellowed,
The irises backed and packed
With tarnished tinfoil
Seen through the lenses
Of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
To return my stare.
–It was more the tipping
Of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
The mechanism of his jaw,
And then I saw
That from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip—
Grim, wet, and weaponlike,
Hung five old pieces of fish-line,
Or four and a wire leader
With the swivel still attached,
With all their five big hooks
Grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
Where he broke it two heavier lines,
And a fine black thread
Still crimped from the strain and snap
When it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
Frayed and wavering,
A five-haired beard of wisdom
Trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
And victory filled up
The little rented boat,
From the pool of bilge
Where oil had spread a rainbow
Around the rusted engine
To the bailer rusted orange,
The sun-cracked thwarts,
The oarlocks and the strings,
The gunnels—until everything
Was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Featured Poem: Love after Love by Derek Walcott

Love After Love

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

The time will come

When, with elation

You will greet yourself arriving

At your own door, in your own mirror

And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored

For another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,

Peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

 

Diane Von Furstenberg once said, “You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.” The advice seems simple and logical enough. But how many of us actually find comfort in being alone? How many of us can safely say that we are whole and happy, just as we are, outside of a relationship?

Self-love, for so long, has been regarded as a negative trait associated with self-absorption and selfishness. For centuries, the idea of loving someone has meant an emptying of one’s self, a relinquishment of the ego. Society has drilled in us the idea that the highest form of love is one that is rooted in self-denial and sacrifice.

But the conversation is changing. Nowadays, mental health and productivity experts are extolling self-care and self-acceptance, both of which are necessary aspects of loving oneself, as being integral to a person’s growth and well-being. While compromise, compassion, and respect are still considered as cornerstones to a successful relationship, it is just as important for a person to retain a healthy sense of self.

Loving someone should never mean losing one’s entire self in the process. For when that love is gone and past, as most loves tend to go, if one has given up everything in pursuit of that fleeting romance—however sweet or long or passion-filled it may have been—what then is left for the brokenhearted?

Today’s featured poem, Love After Love by Derek Walcott, aims to answer that question. Now, I first stumbled upon this gem while doing research for a 2017 post on The Most Romantic Poems of All Time. Suffice to say, it’s been one of my favorite poems ever since.

First seen in Walcott’s 1976 poetry collection, Sea Grapes, Love After Love is a poem that stays true to its title. It talks about the love that you find at the end of a relationship. It reminds you of the importance of loving and accepting your self—the person so worthy of your love, which you have forgotten while in pursuit of the love of another. Through gentle instruction, it reassures the reader that however bad things may get, however broken your heart may be, things will be okay. You will be whole again.

Written in free verse and following the natural cadence of speech, the poem eschews traditional structure and rhyme. It opts, instead, to present its message of self-acceptance and recognition through the simple but effective imagery of coming home and ‘feasting on one’s life.’

Love After Love also puts emphasis on certain areas of the work through clever line breaks, which force the reader to stop and ruminate on the layers of meaning found in the text. By using a gentle and advising tone, Walcott walks the reader through the process of finding one’s ‘forgotten self.’

First Stanza

The poem begins with the image of a homecoming. Now, we’re all familiar with the saying, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ This idea of a return to one’s roots and an acceptance and appreciation of one’s past is a concept frequently used in literature, music, and film. But in Derek Walcott’s Love After Love, this homecoming is a metaphor used to represent rediscovering one’s self.

Walcott begins the poem with the line, ‘The time will come,’ as if to acknowledge that this self-rediscovery isn’t going to be a quick process. But the use of the word elation, coupled with the final line where ‘each will smile at the other’s welcome,’ reassures the reader that however long this process may take, ultimately, it’s one that will yield a positive and a necessary reunion.

Throughout the work, Walcott also uses the future tense will, expressing a solid certainty in his words. ‘The time will come,’ ‘You will greet yourself arriving/ at your own door,’ and most tellingly, ‘You will love again the stranger who was your self.’ (Notice the break between your and self—once again an emphasis of how we tend to forget ourselves when in a relationship with another.)

Second Stanza

In the second stanza, the persona instructs the reader to ‘sit and eat.’ He urges the reader to ‘Give wine,’ and ‘Give bread,’ as if to partake in some eucharistic meal with and of one’s self. Now, the Eucharist or the Holy Communion is a Christian sacrament that hearkens back to the Last Supper where Jesus had instructed his apostles to eat bread and drink wine, symbols of the body and blood that He would give up for mankind.

Now, while Walcott may not have been referring to Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice in these lines, what he is asking the reader to do is to partake in himself/herself. To take in one’s self and be whole again. To solidify this point, he follows this verse with, ‘Give back your heart/ to itself, to the stranger who has loved you.”

Third Stanza

By the third stanza, Walcott drives the point home of how this stranger, one’s forgotten self, is also deserving of the reader’s love and care. For the stranger is one ‘who has loved you/ all your life, whom you ignored for another.’ This stranger is the one that knows the reader ‘by heart.’

These simple but comforting words are there to remind its readers that no matter how alone, unloved, or broken we may feel, we are whole and loved. We must only remember to accept and love ourselves too. And while this poem may have been written for people still recovering from a bad break up, I find that it’s one that applies to those of us who are in loving relationships too. It’s a reminder to love and love freely, and yes, love completely, but not to the degree that you lose all sense of self in the process.

Final Stanza

 

And lastly, as if the previous lines weren’t enough to act as the light at the end of a long tunnel, Walcott continues to bring a dose of positivity to one’s experiences—no matter how harrowing they may have seemed at their onset and immediate aftermath. The persona tells the reader to ‘Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,/ the photographs, the desperate notes.’ This is an invitation to remember, to accept, and to appreciate all the moments of one’s life. For as heartbreaking as some of these memories may be, these moments are what makes us who we are. These are what will allow us to finally, peel our own images from the mirror, to accept ourselves as we are and become whole again.

As a parting message, Love After Love leaves us with the immortal line—“Sit. Feast on your life.” An unspoken reassurance that yours is a life worth loving and celebrating.

 

Featured Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

Are moving across the landscapes,

Over the prairies and the deep trees,

The mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

Are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

(1986, Dream Work)

Last January 17, the world lost one of its brightest and finest literary luminaries. At 83, the National Book Award- and Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver passed away at her home in Florida. Oliver was undeniably one of the most well-loved and influential poets of the last century. She was also an incredible rarity; a titan of literature who enjoyed both commercial and critical success throughout her lifetime.

Oliver was an exceedingly skilled and introspective poet. Her poems often garnered favorable comparisons with the works of the legendary Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, Oliver had no qualms delving deep into the human psyche. She would use sharp and beautiful imagery that often featured the elements of nature to help illustrate mankind’s unbreakable connection to his environment.

Now, Mary Oliver’s extensive literary repertoire is stock-full of stellar poems. But for this post, I’d like to feature a piece that’s very close to my heart. It was a gift from a treasured friend, (hi, Lauren!), and is one that I keep coming back to. Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese is one of those poems that hold in their words a wellspring of wisdom and meaning. It’s one that gives me immeasurable comfort when I’m feeling down and inspires introspection when I’m stuck in a rut. At the risk of sounding cheesy, to me, Wild Geese is an effective balm for the overthinking mind. A much-needed breather we all can use once in a while.

An Analysis of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

In Wild Geese, Oliver demonstrates her keen understanding of man’s restless pursuit of purpose and innate sense of displacement. She urges the reader to look to nature for the answers to his/her unspoken questions. Written in simple verse, the poem is both an easy and comforting read.

Now, in terms of structure, there’s really not much to dissect here. Wild Geese is written in freestyle with eighteen lines and a single stanza. It’s devoid of rhymes and reads more like advice from a wise friend rather than a traditional poem that begs for translation or analysis. But don’t let its simplicity and straightforwardness fool you. For what Wild Geese may lack in grammatical or structural complexity, it certainly makes up for in depth and impact.

Now, one of the things I love most about Wild Geese is its incredibly strong and unforgettable first line—You do not have to be good. As far as first lines go, that one is pretty golden. In my opinion, it ticks a lot of boxes. What do I mean by this? Well, by using the word You, Oliver is both able to command the reader’s attention while establishing both an atmosphere of intimacy and urgency in the work. It’s almost as if the line tells you, “hey, listen for a moment. This is important and this is for you.”

And then there’s the actual message—You do not have to be good. It’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it? A little left-field and off-kilter. First off, the line carries a certain level of gravitas that you usually find in the middle or at the end of a, particularly poignant piece. It’s almost in media res, as if you blinked and suddenly found yourself already in the middle of an existing and serious existential conversation. And then the line sinks in and it’s strange advice. Almost as if the poem is urging you to unlearn one of the first lessons you’re taught in school and at home—be good/do good.

The rest of the stanza continues in this vein, before culminating into solid advice:

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.

I could be over-reading, but in this humble reader’s opinion, the words good and repent, and the image of walking on one’s knees through the desert, seem suffused with religious subtext. It might be the Catholic in me, but to be good and to repent for one’s sins are basic moral requirements of the faith. As for the kneeling, it seems to suggest both worship—an acquiescence and prostration to some societal/moral/religious higher power—and penance for sinning, which if you think about it, aren’t most of the seven deadly sins essentially products of giving in to our baser “animal instincts?” And then you have the final two lines of that stanza—“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I’m 150% sure that Mary Oliver isn’t encouraging us to throw all mores and scruples to the wind and to lead sinful and meaningless lives. But I do believe that she’s telling us that if we want to be happy, we need to shrug off any and all unrealistic and irrational expectations and demands that society may have of us. We need to trust our own judgment and instincts to define and direct our lives.

To illustrate, I sincerely believe that there is “being a good person” and then there’s society’s idea of what being a good person (woman, wife, mother, daughter, son, husband, father, etc.) would entail. And the very notion of ‘good’ being somewhat subjective allows for its multitude of definitions and descriptions. As the definition of good expands, so too does its conditions and caveats—and sometimes, these caveats are antiquated or have very little to do with the notion of good itself. So, why then, do we have to be burdened by outdated, irrelevant, and unhelpful societal expectations? Through Wild Geese, Mary Oliver tells us, “It’s okay. Go ahead and drop that ball.” Pretty darn good advice, if you ask me.

Now, apart from urging us to unburden ourselves of society’s demands, Mary Oliver also encourages us to look to Nature for comfort and guidance. As we fret and fuss over the direction of our lives, as we lie awake at night feeling anxious about the future and feeling so very alone, as we go through the numerous human crises that will plague us in one lifetime—identity, quarter life, midlife, late life, etc.—

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

Are moving across the landscapes,

Over the prairies and the deep trees,

The mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

Are heading home again.

Through this beautifully written passage, Oliver encourages us to find comfort in nature. See how its many elements and creatures remain unperturbed—absolutely sure of their place in this earth. Like the wild geese, we are called to “head home” back into nature. To regain our appreciation and sense of awe when faced with its wild beauty and undeniable order. There is no need to be lonely, because as Oliver reassures us, we are not alone. We are a part of something bigger.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

 

Featured Poem: Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton

In a world so determined to dictate its standards onto one’s person, it’s always refreshing to find literary works—essays, poems, short stories, and novels—that encourage the celebration of one’s individuality. And if said works could be both empowering and entertaining, then all the better.

For over a decade, my ‘feel-good poem’ has been Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman. It’s a poem that I like to write down in all my journals. That way, if I was having a lousy day and needed a quick pick-me-up, all I had to do was reach into my bag and give the piece a swift read. Instant mood and confidence boost! But now that my current journal is down to its final pages, I’m thinking that for my next one, Maya Angelou’s famous poem will have to learn to share the spotlight. See, I think I’ve found the perfect accompanying piece to Phenomenal Woman, and that’s Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton.

Homage to My Hips

By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips.

they need space to

move around in.

they don’t fit into little

petty places. these hips

are free hips.

they don’t like to be held back.

these hips have never been enslaved,

they go where they want to go

they do what they want to do.

these hips are mighty hips.

i have known them

to put a spell on a man and

spin him like a top.

Just like Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a poem that’s built to be said out loud in a tone oozing with sass, good humor, confidence, and cocksure conviction. It’s a piece that positively thrums with joy. Just watch how Lucille Clifton delivers it, and tell me that you didn’t crack at least one smile throughout her reading.

Much like Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a celebration of womanhood. It is a poem that urges women to take ownership of their bodies—to love themselves, just as they are. Big hips and all.

Now, at first glance, the poem itself appears to be very straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that Clifton cannot be bothered with capitalizations and multitudes of metaphors, flowery language and line breaks that are pregnant with meaning. The poet knows what she wants to say and says it directly to her audience. She leaves no room for argument or even the possibility of discussion. She says everything as fact—and rightfully so. Who better to know the effects of one’s body than its wearer?

Clifton starts the poem with the simple but effective declaration: these hips are big hips. Now, even in 1980, when the poem was published in Clifton’s award-winning book of poems, Two-Headed Woman, big hips weren’t exactly de rigueur. In fact, the body ideal during this period had just begun shifting from the soft and slight curves of the 1970s dancing queens to the leggy and athletic Amazonian proportions of the 1980s supermodels.

During that period, there was hardly any room for women with big, bold hips in fashion magazines. But that didn’t really matter to Clifton. See, her hips need space to move around in. Her hips don’t fit into little petty places. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her that her how her body was supposed to look like, because her hips are free hips. Those are hips that were never enslaved by something as petty as convention or the standards of fashion. She didn’t care about measuring herself by anyone else’s specifications—and why would she, when she had her own yardstick to measure herself against. She knew perfectly well that her big hips were mighty and magical hips, powerful hips that have put a spell on a man and spin him like a top.

Now, it’s interesting to note how Clifton had zeroed in and written an homage about a very specific body part. It begs the question, (for this reader, at least), of Why the hips? If Clifton’s point was to urge women to celebrate their bodies as a way of celebrating their entire selves—for, really, try as we may to separate the physical from the spiritual/mental, our bodies are the tangible representations of our inner selves—why stop with that one bit? Why not talk about breasts, waists, hands, and so on and so forth?

For example, in Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou enumerated and exalted in the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, the bend of her hair, and even the curl of her hips. In doing so, Angelou had painted a complete portrait of a woman. You could imagine this phenomenal woman and slip into her shoes easily. And to be fair, the same could be said about Lucille Clifton’s big hips. Any woman could identify with, wear, and sashay in those hips. And I guess that’s what makes Homage to My Hips so amazing—and maybe that’s also the answer to my previous question.

Why the hips? It’s because much of a woman’s identity in history is actually tied to her hips. Maybe I’m over-reading or overreaching here, but the way I see it is that the hips are home to what a lot of writers like to refer to as the woman’s core. Personally, I think vagina works just fine, but potatoes, po-tah-tos. The hips are the center of a woman’s sexuality. And for a long time, what those hips could produce—a child!—was also seen as the largest measure of her worth and her identity. Why else would our ancestors be so obsessed with child-bearing hips?

And I’d like to believe that the poem, more than celebrating a woman’s form, whatever that form or shape may take, is also a way of urging women to take charge of their sexuality and their identity. Buck the body trends, and more importantly, create your own definition of who you are as a woman. Don’t let society impose its standards on your person. Instead, create, and more importantly, live your own story.

That, and of course, big hips (no matter their actual size) are fabulous and beautiful hips.

Featured Poem: Her Kind by Anne Sexton

Her Kind

Back in college, quite some time ago, there was this little game I used to play called “100 steps.” I would pace around the university library, meandering through the maze of towering shelves, one hand lightly touching the fabric, paper, and leather spines of the books I would walk past. I would mentally count each step, only stopping on the hundredth mark. Then, I’d pull out and peruse whatever tome I ended up touching last. Not the most fun game around, sure. But it was a great way to find new and interesting reads.

Through this little game, I learned quite a bit about a variety of random but fascinating topics. We’re talking South American courtship practices, the history of polygamy, modern-day bigamy, and my personal favorite—the rise of eating disorders in women during the Victorian era. This little practice also made it easier for me to discover amazing poets like Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, and the genius behind today’s featured poem, the controversial and unforgettable Anne Sexton.

A Few Words on the Poet

Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was a Pulitzer-winning American poet known for her incredibly potent and oftentimes dark verse. Like my favorite poet of all time, Sylvia Plath, most of Sexton’s works comprised of confessional poetry that touched on difficult and deeply personal themes like mental disorders, suicide, depression, social stigmas, the struggles faced by women during that period, and the complex and sometimes scarring relationships between the writer and her loved ones.

And just like Plath, Sexton had no trouble mining, exhuming, examining, and using her experiences to say what was generally unsayable. No topic appeared taboo to Sexton—although she did request that The Awful Rowing Toward God be published only after her death. And she really did have a very deep well of experiences to draw from. Throughout her short life—sadly shortened by her own hands, no less—Sexton struggled against multiple episodes of severe manic and depressive attacks.

It was during her second spiral into mania in 1955 that she met her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne. During their therapy sessions, Dr. Orne began encouraging Sexton to take up writing. The poet attended John Holmes’s poetry workshop, where it was discovered that she had an incredible knack for poetry. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Her Kind: A Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Anne Sexton’s famous poem, Her Kind, explores the struggles of its persona to conform to the societal expectations and norms levied against women during the early to mid-20th century. During this period, women were expected to live a certain way—to grow up to be future wives, mothers, and homemakers, with little wiggle room to be anything else. In other words, a woman’s path was paved but incredibly narrow, bright but harshly lit, with a lobotomy waiting at the end of it. But the voice of Her Kind is unwilling, or maybe even unable, to minimize herself to fit the strict confines of society’s definition of woman. She cannot and will not be boxed in.

Now, to illustrate the character’s defiance, Sexton divides the poem into three sections, with each stanza showing a specific side of the persona. In the first stanza, the persona presents herself as a lonesome suburban witch. The next stanza, she’s a lonely housewife or mother. And finally, in the last stanza, the persona paints herself as a defiant adulteress about to face her execution. Written in the first person, Her Kind reads more like a declaration of self, an affirmation of identity, rather than a simple retelling of the character’s life. It is the persona’s rebellion against the dictates of a society seeking to restrict her identity by telling her who, what, and how to be.

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Featured Poem: Woman to Man by Ai

Powerful, violent, gritty, gut-wrenching, and polarizing—these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of Ai Ogawa’s poetry. The narrative poet is known for her short and intense dramatic monologues, her chilling offerings of a slice of someone else’s life. The fact that her poems are also told in first person narrative allows both Ai and the reader to step into her characters’ shoes. And bear in mind that these shoes are far from comfortable.

When Ai chooses her characters, she does so from the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the country—the outsiders, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the racially profiled, and the voiceless. She probes and exposes the underbelly of American culture and society, choosing to write about ‘taboo’ topics like abortion, child abuse, murder, and spousal abuse. Ai then, gifts her narrator with a voice so violent and so strong the reader cannot unhear it. The echo of her stories stick with you and into you like invisible needles, long after you’ve forgotten the actual words.

Now, for today’s poetry review, we’re doing an analysis of the poem, Woman to Man. The poem was first published in 1973 in Cruelty, Ai’s first collection of poetry. When Cruelty first came out, it did so in the midst of the second wave of feminism, and in the same year, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

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The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part 2)

lovepoems2

Here’s the continuation to my post on the most romantic poems of all time. Again, in no particular order, another ten love poems guaranteed to make you a little weak in the knees.

To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet

I prize thy love more than the whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

This short poem from Anne Bradstreet reads like a beautiful and passionate love letter. The poet talks about the intense happiness one can derive from being with the person one loves. The persona also claims that her esteem for her husband is eternal—for it is the type of love that can never be surpassed. It is his love alone that can satisfy her. She also expresses tremendous gratitude to her husband for this life-changing and immortal love.

Meeting at Night by Robert Browning

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each.

In my previous post, I had included Sonnet 43 (How do I love thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This time around, we have an entry from her husband, Robert Browning. Meeting at Night speaks of a rendezvous between lovers. More accurately, it talks about the persona’s journey to his lover’s place and the excitement they feel upon seeing each other.

At the start of the poem, the persona describes what he sees and experiences without disclosing his intended destination. It is only in the last two sentences that we realize it is a joyful and somewhat secret reunion between him and his loved one (tap of the pane, quick sharp scratch).

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;

Here’s a small confession from this reader—I can’t quite decide if this ‘love poem’ is sweet or not, but what I know is that its persona is persistent. To His Coy Mistress, a poem published posthumously in 1681, is one of the most well-known poems from Andrew Marvell. In it, the persona is in pursuit of his ‘coy mistress.’ He starts the poem declaring the breadth and depth of his love for her and then attempts to convince her to give in to his seduction by presenting the rather harsh imagery of death. He asks her to love him before it’s too late for both of them. Sweet or not, this poem earns high points for its morbid persistence.

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

More sad than sweet, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe explores the theme of a love that continues even after death. The poem, which is about the death of a beautiful woman, is believed to have been inspired by Poe’s own loss. His wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, was just 24 years old when she succumbed to a bout of consumption.

In the poem, the persona remembers and relives the loss of his beloved. They had been in love as children, and had maintained a love so strong that even the angels were envious of their happiness. The angels then sent down a wind that chilled and killed the beautiful Annabel Lee. Despite her death, the persona insists that their love remains strong; for nothing could ever sever his soul from the soul of Annabel Lee.

A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luv thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

A Red, Red Rose was written by Robert Burns in 1794. Despite actually being a song and not a poem, its lyrics and consistent publication in literary sites has landed it a place in my top 20 love poems list. With its charming imagery of red roses in June and rocks melting in the sun, the poem depicts the sweetness of true and lasting love.

I Loved You First: but Afterwards Your Love by Christina Rossetti

For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine’;
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:

In I loved you first: but afterwards your love, Christina Rossetti writes about the oneness that comes with being in a relationship with the right person. The persona addresses her lover directly, confessing that while she may have loved him first, it was his love that outsoared hers. But ultimately, there is no need for “weights and measures,” for as Rossetti puts it:

Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine’;
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.

 A Glimpse by Walt Whitman

…And I unremark’d seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
Seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;

True to its name, A Glimpse by Walt Whitman reads like a beautiful scene from your favorite romance novel. Just one moment of sheer happiness and contentment as the rest of the world continues its hustle and bustle, its flurry of movement. One scene of love immortalized in time.

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sonnet 18, alternatively titled as Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, is perhaps the most well-loved of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. In the poem, the persona addresses his lover and compares his beloved to a lovely summer’s day. But ultimately, he points out that his dearest is fairer and more everlasting than the short season, beautiful as summertime may be. His words also prove prophetic when he claims that his beloved will be immortalized through this text, as both Shakespeare and Sonnet 18 have become a permanent fixtures in the ever-evolving literary landscape.

That I Did Always Love by Emily Dickinson

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived—Enough—

Fact: Emily Dickinson is one of the finest (and most eccentric) poets to have walked the earth. Also a fact: with her unique use of syntax and capitalizations, her poems are shrouded in an esoteric curtain that begs to be lifted. Well, perhaps more than a curtain, each work is an onion that begs to be peeled layer by layer. Now, the beauty of That I Did Always Love is its rawness and straightforwardness.

Through this poem, she proves to her beloved that she has always loved him. She tells him, almost directly between her em dashes, that what gives life meaning is love, and that should he doubt her love for him then she would feel nothing but immense suffering.

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored

 And finally, rounding up this list is Love after Love by Sir Derek Walcott. Dare I say it? This is probably my favorite love poem of all—for it is a love poem for one’s self. In this poem, the persona talks to the reader directly and reminds the reader that when everyone else is gone, there is one other person that deserves your love—yourself.

It is easy enough to forget oneself when in love. We give and we give and we empty ourselves in the hopes of reciprocity. But in the midst of a whirlwind or a soft and lingering love affair, it is important to once in a while, “Sit. [and] Feast on your life.”

(See Part I of The Most Romantic Poems of All Time)

The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part I)

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For this particular reader, there are few things more romantic than a heartfelt and well-written love poem. Oh, a diamond ring is an absolute darling. But terrific poetry? Now, that is forever.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I’ve compiled a list of the most romantic poems of all time. Admittedly, personal preference did come into play (a lot) during this selection process. So, if your favorite love poems failed to make the initial cut, just chime in. This is just the first of a two-part series—I’ll be happy to include your suggestions in the next list.

So, without further ado (and in no particular order), here are the most romantic poems of all time. Read and enjoy.

On Marriage by Kahlil Gibran

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

This excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s immensely popular book, The Prophet, is one of the most popular wedding readings today. It’s a piece that encourages husband and wife to stand together in love but also to retain a semblance of individuality. Or, as Gibran puts it:

Give your hearts, but not in each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the Cyprus grow not in each other’s shadows.

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in] by E. E. Cummings

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Fact: many of E.E. Cummings’s most well-known poems are very avant-garde in terms of style. Also a fact: These works carry universal appeal, hence their enduring popularity. In [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in], Cummings gives the traditional love poem a fresh twist with his experimental use of punctuation and syntax.

(see my review of E. E. Cummings’s poem, l(a here.)

Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley

And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

Now, here’s a poem about unrequited love. Love’s Philosophy was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1820. In this poem, the speaker tries to convince his beloved to return his feelings by pointing out how everything in nature is interconnected and intermingles. As Shelley puts it:

All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle; —
Why not I with thine?

Pretty compelling argument right there, if you ask me.

Sonnet 43 (How Do I Love Thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Sonnet 43, also known as How Do I Love Thee, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is the second to the last poem in the poet’s love sonnets collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese. In this poem, the persona proclaims the extent of her love for her partner—which according to the poem is pretty much limitless. It’s a declaration of an unbounded, inexhaustible, and infinite love. The poem is also said to have been written for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s husband, Robert Browning.

Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you straightforwardly without complexities or pride;

This is one of my favorite poems from the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. It’s a poem that conveys the truth about love—that it is not always perfect but it is all-encompassing.

See my analysis of Sonnet XVII here.

Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds by William Shakespeare

…Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

No list of love poems is complete without this gem from the Bard of Avon. In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare gives us a beautiful definition of what Love truly means. According to Shakespeare, real love is unchanging—it is an ‘ever-fixed mark’ in the face of ‘tempests.’

Another Valentine by Wendy Cope

Our love is old and sure, not new and frantic.
You know I’m yours and I know you are mine.
And saying that has made me feel romantic,
My dearest love, my darling valentine.

Another Valentine by Wendy Cope is just the poem for those of us in long-term relationships. The poem starts out with the persona seemingly complaining about Valentine’s Day. “Today we are obliged to be romantic.” But as you can see, her tune changes soon enough. It’s a short, humorous, and sweet piece that’s a delight to read.

She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

She Walks in Beauty might just be the sweetest poem ever written. The way Lord Byron describes the poem’s subject—her beauty, her charm, and her grace—is nothing short of swoon-worthy. Now, according to several sources, the poem was inspired by the mesmerizing good looks of Mrs. Anne Beatrix Wilmot—the wife of Byron’s first cousin.

Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
Possessive and faithful
As we are,
For as long as we are.

In Valentine, Carol Ann Duffy does away with the usual representations of love like the red rose and the satin heart. She goes for a more faithful symbol instead—the onion.  Like the onion, true love has its many layers. Its sting can blind you with tears, its fierce kiss is possessive and faithful, and its scent is one that clings.

High points for accuracy.

To My Valentine by Ogden Nash

I love you more than a wasp can sting,
And more than the subway jerks,
I love you as much as a beggar needs a crutch,
And more than a hangnail irks.

Humor is key to this lovely and lively little poem from Ogden Nash. With its unflattering imagery and easy rhymes, To My Valentine exudes the same innocent and childlike vibe as that old nursery rhyme that goes—“dogs and snails and puppy dog tails.” But the beauty of this poem is that underneath the uncomplimentary visuals it presents is a persona just reassuring his valentine of his immense love.

(See Part 2 of this list here)