Four poems this Valentines

Ye Olde Love: John Donne’s The Good-Morrow

Published in 1633, The Good-Morrow is one of Donne’s earliest poems – widely considered to be the first of his sonnets – and features in the Songs and Sonnets collection. The poems from this collection focus on reciprocal love rather than the difficulties when trying to control women that occupy a number of his Elegies, which isn’t all that festive. The poem starts with Donne addressing his lover after they’d woken up from a deep sleep. He asks her what on earth they used to do and how they used to be before they were together (‘till [they] loved’). Were they just ‘childishly’ sucking on their mother’s breast? Obviously, they had grown out of that, but the point is to emphasise the maturity of their love and the state of infancy they were in before they found each other – it’s less bizarre now. The stanza ends with Donne saying that all of his former lady-friends had been ‘but a dream’ in comparison to this one.

He then wishes her good morning (hence, ‘Good Morrow’) and they look at each other, but because of their deep spiritual love as well as their sensual love, they don’t look at each other with ‘fear’ or jealousy: their love is true love. Donne even goes so far as to renounce the need for the discovery of ‘new worlds’, as he and his lover will explore each other, as they are each other’s worlds. He concludes with the image of the two lovers looking into each other’s eyes and seeing their reflection (‘My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears’). Evoking the discoverer references again, talks of the two being the best possible ‘hemispheres’ – geographically their ‘other halves’ – because their hemispheres don’t have a cold ‘north’ or a ‘declining west’. With these two halves loving the other equally (‘love so alike’), he declares their love cannot ‘slacken’ nor ‘die’.


Young Love: W.B. Yeats’ Down by the Salley Gardens

Published over two hundred years after Donne’s in 1889, as part of The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems collection, Yeats’ describes the opposite kind of love: melodramatic young romance. Yeats and his ‘love’ meet in the Salley Gardens (located on the riverbank Sligo, Northern Ireland) where his love asks him to take things slowly (‘easy’) and let things develop organically (‘as the leaves grow on the tree’), but Yeats being ‘young and foolish’, disagreed. In the same field, the girl asks again that Yeats approaches things calmly to allow their love to develop naturally, ‘as the grass grows on the weirs’, but unfortunately for Yeats, being ‘young and foolish’ got his heart broken and is left ‘full of tears’.


Forbidden Love: Lord Alfred Douglas’ Two Loves

Douglas’ poem was published in the 1894 issue of the Oxford University Journal, The Chameleon. The poem was used as evidence against Oscar Wilde in his trial where he was defending accusations of indecency and sodomy, as it was well-known that the two had been embroiled in an illicit ‘love affair.’ Douglas speaks of two kinds of love: the love between ‘true Love’ that fills the ‘hearts of boy and girl’ and ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’ This oft-quoted line has become a euphemism for homosexuality and has been attributed to Wilde as he referenced it during his trial; his speech was so moving that he was acquitted but was later convicted of a second charge and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

In his speech, Wilde spoke of the platonic love of Ancient Greece between two men, which was considered the highest form of love. He called upon great figures in history, such as Michelangelo and Shakespeare, who had written love sonnets addressed to men. (Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, Sonnet 18, ’Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, was actually written about a man.) He marks the great affection that an older man may feel for a younger (as was the case with Wilde and Douglas) by alluding to the love between biblical figures, David and Jonathan, and intellectual affection being the basis for Plato’s philosophy. Wilde laments the ‘century misunderstood’ in which he has been placed where the ‘noblest form of affection’ (the intellectual) cannot be understood. Bit dreary to put in a card, but this poem should definitely feature amongst some of the greatest love ballads.


Modern Love: Nick Laird’s Epithalamium

 The least-known poem in this selection, Epithalamium is the first poem in Nick Laird’s 2013 collection, Go Giants. The title is particularly ambiguous but possibly refers to Edmund Spenser’s, Epithalamion (literally, ‘at the nuptial chamber,’ from the Greek epi and thalamus), which is an ode addressed to the poet’s bride on their wedding day. The poem describes a newly-wed couple’s quarrelsome relationship, which is characterised by conflict and battles for superiority. The first four stanzas of the poem comprise acerbic back-and-forth descriptions of the two, where she’s ‘beeswax’ and he’s ‘bird shit’, he’s ‘mostly harmless’ and she’s ‘irrational’, he’s ‘iniquity’, but she’s ‘theft’. Both of them irritate the other, for example, as ‘beeswax’ denotes someone’s ‘business’ and the great effort bees go to, to produce something, whilst the poet’s description denotes the opposite, being ‘bird shit’ – that which is effortlessly, and often irritatingly, expelled. These images of provocation conjure up the inflammatory nature of their relationship where one delights in antagonising the other and vice versa.It doesn’t all end in tears, though. The final stanza shows that the conflicts the couple have are, in fact, what makes them stronger and united to such an extent that Laird leaves the poem on an ambiguous note whereby he says, ‘it seems to me that I am you,/and you are me… or I am, or you are’.

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