On this auspicious day, allow me to submit my two favorite love poems. I teach these side-by-side in my British Literature course when we begin discussing the impact of relationships and romance on our lives. Unlike the allusion to Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, what I present here is NOT the best of sonnets and the worst of sonnets, although the second has likely be overused and underappreciated. I know I didn’t fully appreciate it when I first heard it. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” begins Browning’s “Sonnet 43.” Sounds like a Hallmark card, right? This sonnet could be one of those cheesy romantic sayings stamped on the mini-chalky hearts that kids share in elementary school, right? (Click the link to enjoy this idea imagined by Charles Schulz in Peanuts.) But the depth of what Browning shares demands we pause, reflect, and deepen, just like the love she shares.
Though Shakespeare has his share of outstanding sonnets, “Sonnet 116” stands apart as my favorite. I have always imagined the speaker sitting in the back of a church, struggling with what he sees before him: the love of his life marrying someone who does not understand true love. Lust, maybe. But the true depths that the speaker shares, no way. That’s why I see him bursting out of the last pew on the minister’s words, “If anyone here knows of any reason why these two should not be wed, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” Here we learn what true love really is. (Click the link if “true love” reminds you of a certain priest with a speech impediment and a bride named Buttercup.) Seriously, though, Shakespeare’s bold proclamation commands us to ponder the unconditional and unchanging nature of true love, something this world needs a whole lot of right now, romantic or not.
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. I love thee to the level of every day's Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. 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; It is the star to every wand'ring bark, Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle's compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me prov'd, I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.