The English heart, so often accused of being cold, is nonetheless responsible for some of the more ardent lines of poetry known to us. Think of Lord Byron’s worshipful verse:
‘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’.
His neat, lean lines produce the same lightening effect of love at first sight, which is said to have inspired him. And if we’re looking for a female equivalent, we might turn to Victorian poet Christina Rossetti. In her poem Birthday, she writes, ‘My heart is like a rainbow shell / That paddles in a halcyon sea; / My heart is gladder than all these / Because my love is come to me.’
These are charming in the extreme, but the search for further satisfaction will turn up little more than dust. I hate to break it to you, but the rest of the English canon displays a pretty pedestrian version of the big L-O-V-E.
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s love is an ‘onion’ which ‘will blind you with tears / like a lover.’ Legendary punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke wrote, ‘Let me be your electric meter / I will not run out / Let me be the electric heater / You get cold without’ which is at the very least more (dare I say it) warming than John F. Deane’s attempt. The Irish wordsmith went for, ‘I liken you, my darling, to a mare’, a questionable honour in my eyes, while no-frills John Betjeman had:
“‘Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another –
Let us hold hands and look.”
She is such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;’
and finally, Ted Hughes, who’s many unflattering overtures ranged from the derisive: ‘Nobody wanted your dance’, to the frankly deflating: ‘Her kisses were lawyers steadily writing’. Without being outright awful, he manages to diminish love into a miserable civil procedure, with no more interest or worth than a plastic spoon. You get the feeling you’re being fly-swatted down from any lofty, paradisiacal ideas of love into a glum and unnecessary reality. This is the Ted Hughes, by the way, whose wife and mistress committed suicide within a few years of each other.
I know that you will be tempted to argue that all these comparisons to the domestic – heaters and foodstuffs and horses – are the unwieldy manoeuvrings of modern poets. You want to believe the Great and the Good did better. But I’m not so sure they did. Andrew Marvell, in perhaps the most famous poem of the 17thcentury, used eloquent language to try and get his lady-love into bed. We’re all aware of the crafty stanzas of His Coy Mistress, which starts with a little rebuke, ‘Had we but world enough and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime’, before running quickly into a faintly ominous threat of wasted virginity after death: ‘The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace.’
Our much-lauded Shakespeare didn’t necessarily do better. In perhaps one of his best-known sonnets, Sonnet 130, he tells us his mistress is fairly ordinary, as they go, but oh, joy of joys, he loves her anyway. Look, I am not denying the poetry itself is beautiful, but I am denying the beauty of the message. I don’t know how many women want to be told they are pretty standard fare – even if they are. Nor do I know many women who want to be regularly reminded to rut abundantly before death and disease strikes them down.
Faced now, as I am, with a lack of the heart-wrenching soppiness you might want to experience on Valentine’s Day, I shall have to use my wits. I am determined to work us all up into a romantic frenzy one way or another.
I wondered whether the fact that men don’t understand women was ruining some of their well-meaning efforts… but even the smallest dip into love poetry written by men for men left me alarmed. Remember W. H. Auden, who’s poem Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone was famously read in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral? It’s a beautiful piece, choked with genuine pain, and, certainly a love poem in it’ own league:
‘He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
But I don’t really want to grieve. Sorry to be picky, but one fancies something brightly celebratory for the 14thof February! I wanted something heart-warming, so I ploughed diligently through Auden’s work. What I found was that our national pride, W. H. Auden, who’s lyrical mastery shines in the writing of mourning poetry, uses some rather less dignified (if no less impressive), skills in his poem, The Platonic Blow. It starts with:
‘It was a spring day, a day for a lay, when the air
Smelled like a locker-room, a day to blow or get blown;
Returning from lunch I turned my corner and there
On a near-by stoop I saw him standing alone.’
It proceeds on, to an astonishing 34 verses, that’s 136 lines, giving us graphic step by step (or blow by blow, if you will) detail of his encounter. The title is misleading. The action of the poem is in no way platonic: it’s racy stuff alright. Some other lines include, ‘Explored the adorable masculine tits’, ‘I hugged, I snuggled into an armpit. I sniffed / The subtle whiff of its tuft’ and, my personal favourite: “‘Shall I rim you?” I whispered’. And while I don’t want to give the whole thing away, you do know what’s about to go down when he pens, ‘I stroked it from top to bottom. I got on my knees. / I lowered my head. I opened my mouth for the job.’
‘Did any Brit ever truly love anyone and adequately express it in verse?!’ I began to wonder. Then it dawned on me, my love is probably different to yours. You might want romance, or a good old-fashioned roll in the hay – presumably that’s not for me to know. Thus, I’ll finish with a get out clause: this incomplete selection of British love poems didn’t quite capture me, but hopefully there’s something in there for you. If only a surprising new opinion of W. H. Auden.