Compiled by Sarah Sweeney
Since the dawn of time, love—finding it, keeping it, losing it—has been the enduring creative muse for writers, musicians, and people everywhere. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we asked the campus writers and English faculty to share and discuss their favorite love poems, and from parents and loneliness to Puritanical subversiveness, their answers get at the very kernel of what makes love so complicated and compelling.
Aubry Threlkeld, Myrt Harper Rose ’56 Dean of Education
Poetry that captures the love for a mother is perhaps ingrained in our collective consciousness. How many young people write love poems to their parents before they understand the nature and trappings of romantic love?
And as the poem The Lanyard by Billy Collins so clearly points out, how often are our projects, poems, and gifts but an infinitesimal fraction of what we have been given? Collins so accurately captures the futile sense of describing our appreciation, and dare-I-say-it love for our mothers through the remembering of making a lanyard at camp. Lanyards are meant to be a short rope to affix something yet how inadequate they become when we need something more robust to capture such a dynamic relationship.
Gabrielle Watling, Professor of English
Philip Larkin's anti-Valentine, Talking in Bed, gets my vote! I don't love the idea that one day a year we should all agree that being in love is our default condition. That's not to say that I don't believe in falling (oh the delicious joy!) and being (I love the being) in love. But I love this poem.
Larkin did have difficulty with love, and, with the typical (over)confidence of the public male intellectual, seemed to think that everyone else did as well. This poem wants us to recognize the inevitable falling away of love’s novelty (“Yet more and more time passes silently”), but instead of offering optimistic suggestions about “love finding a way,” or the secure comfort of a mature love, the poem keeps us uncomfortably in the speaker’s moment.
Larkin’s difficult, disappointed speaker translates that “unique distance from isolation” as loneliness, and flattens the generous vulnerability of “being honest” into the self-preservation of being “not untrue.” And yet, I can’t think of a better poem for balancing all those Zales commercials.
Charlotte Gordon, Distinguished Professor of Humanities
One of the reasons I love Anne Bradstreet’s poem, To my dear and loving husband, is how sneaky it is. At first glance, it appears to be a conventional love sonnet, a declaration of the poet's love for her husband, but beneath the surface lie two scandalous assertions that could have led to terrible consequences for Bradstreet if anyone noticed. Fortunately, no one did. Bradstreet was such a skillful poet (and 17th-century women so routinely underestimated), that she was able to hide her radical positions under layers of imagery.
The traditional Puritan stance was that the enjoyment of earthly matters should never impede one’s devotion to God; life should be a continual struggle against temptation. At the same time, it was important to be grateful for one’s blessings, to enjoy the things of this world, but, always, in moderation. This is what historians call the Puritan Dilemma: to live in this world, but not be of this world. In practical terms, this meant that one’s love for God should always be greater than one’s love for the world. Enjoy eating, but not too much. Enjoy nature’s beauties, but don’t forget divine beauty. Delight in sex, but don’t let passion overshadow God.
But Bradstreet has a different take. At no point in this poem does she worry that she loves her husband too much. Nor does she depict their marriage as impeding their devotion to God. Instead, she describes their love as so enriching that it is a potential gateway to the divine. In the last two lines, she drives this point home, declaring that she hopes their love will last forever, implying that marriage could win them eternal life. It is easy for the modern reader to miss how shocking this was. Bradstreet was supposed to pit her love for her husband against her love for God, or, at the very least, see human love as a dim shadow of divine love. Certainly, she was not supposed to intertwine the two loves—human and divine.
Another Puritan idea that Bradstreet subverts in this poem is the traditional hierarchy between husband and wife. Puritans believed that a husband should be the lord and master of the household, but clearly, Bradstreet did not consider her husband her superior. Instead, by pulling back the curtain on her interior life, she reveals her passions, her initiative, her cleverness as a writer, and her joy, placing her voice at the center of the poem while her husband remains mute; she does not allow him to speak even one word. Simply by describing her love, Bradstreet dominates the poem and her husband, performing a profoundly radical act by demonstrating that a woman’s experience could come first, and that her voice was just as important as any man’s, if not more so.
Sergio Inestrosa, Professor of Spanish
I chose Pablo Neruda’s famous Poem 20 not only because it’s one of the most famous love poems ever written in Latin America, but it was one of the first poems that I read when I was a young boy. I always return to Neruda to find inspiration and in particular to this poem.
Read the poem in original Spanish and the English translation.
Samuel Alexander, Associate Professor of English and Faculty Lead for the Humanities
e.e. cummings’ love is more thicker than forget defines love by telling us all that it is “more” and “less” than—and by flagrantly breaking the rules of the English language. By “rules,” I don’t mean the dictates of grammar mavens, but the complex systems for building words and sentences that children master without trying. No native speaker would be tempted to describe something as “more thicker” because we know without having to be told that adjectives become comparative either through the addition of “more” or through the addition of the “-er” suffix—never both.
But by doing just that, cummings doubly amplifies the “thickness” of love, defining it as an overwhelming presence in our lives that resists even the fickleness of desire and the forgetfulness of old age. As the creators of “algospeak” have recently done to circumvent the rules of TikTok, cummings bends and breaks the rules of human language to make new meaning in a way no chatbot ever could. The result is a celebration of human language in its infinite creativity and the chaotic force that another great poet called "anarchic Aphrodite."