…the poet considers the literature of desire, from Marvell’s coy mistress to John Betjeman’s lovelorn subaltern
“If ever two were made for each other surely it is love and poetry: the infinite variety of love meeting the boundless capacity of poetry to embrace it. There is something both sweet and intense about all aspects of romantic love, a combination that is ideally suited to poetry’s marriage of the music of speech with compressed content. This is true from love’s first blush through to its heady consummation.
“It is a surprise, however, to find that the straightforward romantic paean is comparatively rare amongst great love poems. Perhaps this is because the self-satisfied I’m-so-happy-now-we-twain-are-one approach can cloy. For the most part, great love poems are either ones of wily courtship, unrequited love, or the bitterest regret. There is something delicious about these marginal states in which Desire (for it is he) is constantly unsatisfied, confounded or denied. I would hazard a shaft that it is just this strange quality of desire to persist in the face of its own negation that we find compelling. With that in mind, and with the exception of the Shakespeare (he seems to be able to carry it off), all the poems I’ve chosen, in no particular order, are of this type. ”
A romantic take on Horace’s Carpe Diem in which the suitor desires to seize rather more than simply the day. This poem contains many of the cleverest metaphysical conceits: witness “our vegetable love” or those trying worms.
2. The Love-Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot
This is a truly subversive poem, whose first three lines signal the arrival of literary modernism and which can be practically read as its credo. Prufrock is a miscast troubadour of the Edwardian drawing room who fails to raise his lute or his voice due to simple lack of courage. The poem is an anthem for all those who have failed through inaction, which probably includes us all at some time, and which no doubt is what provides it with its great poignancy.
The saddest poem ever written. All the back-story is supplied by the reader as the death of a solitary old man is reported by a younger one.
A latter-day warrior is beguiled to his inevitable fate by, as her name suggests, a temptress in the mythic tradition. The quiet stroke of brilliance in this poem is just that fact that Betjeman makes the narrator a soldier, trained to repel any military assault no doubt, but defenceless in the face of “strenuous singles” with the athletic young Joan Hunter Dunn. She runs out the “victor”, not only in the tennis, but in all regards. A caveat on the hazards of mixing hormones with physical activity.
When Henry VIII announced that he intended to marry Anne Boleyn, Wyatt wrote to the king in an effort to dissuade him, saying he himself had had knowledge of her. This poem portrays a hind that the speaker and others pursue vainly and which wears a necklace of jewels that spell out “Noli me tangere [Do not touch me], for Caesar’s I am.” In the event, Henry took no notice of the letter, thinking perhaps that Wyatt had written it out of jealously. The rest is monumental history.
If there are a number of great conceits in the Marvell, then there is a single one in this, at first sight tasteless masterpiece. Almost, one feels, as an exercise in virtuosity, Donne turns a human flea into a persuasive romantic symbol. Said flea has just bitten both himself and the object of his attentions and so becomes an improbable erotic crucible: Donne argues disingenuously that, as the two of them are now conjoined in the flea, they might just as well get on with the grosser physical details.
A poem of bitter ruefulness with the ex lover addressed as “Criminal”. This is an exuberant rehearsal of various curses around the thief-of-the-heart motif. It knowingly protests too much, however, which is what lends it its great charm.
The unusual thing about this poem is that it is contextualised externally: the reader needs to know that, by the time of writing, Milton is blind. There is one place he can still see however: in dream. This paradox is used to provide the poem with a truly devastating denouement.
9. A Private Bottling by Don Paterson
The end of many a relationship has left a sour taste in the mouth; in this case it is that of single-malt whiskys. Our insomniac narrator sets a fairy ring of nips about a room and the sad circle begins where it ends via unfulfilled potential and sorry recollection blended with acid judgment of the betrayer. It concludes with as bitter a toast to a woman as was ever offered by man.
In this staple of wedding ceremonies, “mind” probably means something nearer to what we mean by the word “spirit”. Or we have a more modern term that covers it: “soul-mate”. From this poem we can, as is so often the case, give the last word to Shakespeare, a succinct characterisation of the wish for enduring love: “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds.”
- John Stammers – guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 9 February 2011
John Stammers is a poet and creative writing teacher. His first collection, Panoramic Lounge-Bar, won the Forward prize for best first collection in 2001 and was shortlisted for the Whitbread poetry award. His second collection, Stolen Love Behaviour, was a Poetry Book Society Choice. In a review for the Guardian, Charles Bainbridge wrote that it explored “the shady areas of libido and guilt, of bars, boudoirs and basements, the fragile underbelly of the hip and sophisticated.” He is the editor of the Picador Book of Love Poems.
The Picador Book of Love Poems