Love is a perennial theme for poets and lyricists the world over, of course, and there are many poems that I could choose from. I’d like to have chosen “Tell Me the Truth Above Love” by W.H. Auden, for example, but the copyright situation is rather complex and I strongly suspect this doesn’t count as fair use so it’s public domain poetry only for the present.

This week’s poems are:

Next week’s poems will continue the theme of love into wooing and weddings.

Poem 10. Sonnets from the Portuguese 43

I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life;

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806—1861)

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.

Nicola often asked me, “Do you love me? How much?” and I would respond with an extravagant simile to make her smile. I should have memorised this sonnet as my answer.

It’s an eloquent statement of the poet’s love: the dimensions, qualities, strength and duration of her passion—she loves further than the eye can see: as far as her soul can reach, as far as men can strive, with her breath, smiles and tears—the whole emotive force of her life and hopes that her love will only strengthen after she dies.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a popular English Victorian poet who despite her frail health wrote so prolifically that she might have become poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth. She was an anti-slavery campaigner (her family had owned plantations in Jamaica) and influenced changes to child labour laws. She married the poet Robert Browning secretly in defiance of her father who disinherited her when he discovered her deception. They lived in Italy and moved in a circle of creativity that included William Makepeace Thackeray, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Ruskin. Her health was never good: it deteriorated in 1860-61 and she died in Florence aged 55, leaving one son.

Poem 11. She Walks in Beauty

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788—1824)

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;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

This poem praises its subject fulsomely, dwelling on the many good qualities, both physical and spiritual, of the woman in question. It speaks of her appearance as reflecting the inner person: “the smiles that win, the tints that glow, but tell of days in goodness spent”. The poet imagines this lady looking her best at twilight, I think—“One shade the more, one ray the less had half impaired the nameless grace.”

It is odd that a poem that speaks of its subject’s purity and innocence should have been written by a man described by his lover as “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”. George Gordon, Lord Byron is perhaps best known by the description bestowed on him by Lady Caroline Lamb. He was a poet, a peer and a politician who travelled widely and espoused the cause of Greek independence against the Ottoman Empire.

Byron went to Harrow and Cambridge University and then went on the customary Grand Tour, visiting Portugal, Spain, Malta and Greece and Constantinople (as it was then). On his return to England, he became a celebrity when his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was partially published. He married in 1815.

Difficulties in his marriage were made by his profligate behaviour (like his father, he had married for money, and for the same reasons) and by his promiscuous sexual behaviour and obsession with his half-sister, and his wife obtained a legal separation, taking their only daughter Ada with her (Ada became a mathematician and worked on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine: she has a claim to be the first computer programmer and the computer language Ada is named for her).

A combination of scandal over the separation and rumours of incest with his half-sister as well as his mounting debts forced his departure for the Continent where he befriended Percy and Mary Shelley in Switzerland and was present at the famous occasion that led to the creation of Frankenstein and his Monster by Mary Shelley and the innovation of the dissolute, elegant vampire (the forerunner of Dracula) by Byron’s physician Dr. Polidori.

He moved on to Italy, living in Venice, Pisa, Ravenna and Genoa, before espousing the cause of Greek independence and travelling to Cephalonia where he was courted by various Greek factions but failed to get them to unite against their common foe. He had planned to lead an attack on the Ottomans at Lepanto, but fell ill and was further weakened by his doctors’ bloodletting; it is thought that he may have contracted sepsis from unsterilized instruments and he died of a fever aged 36.

His fame outgrew his notoriety and the initial reluctance of the authorities to honour him in any way (he was buried in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire because his “questionable morality” denied him a resting place in Westminster Abbey) eventually subsided to the extent that a memorial was placed in the Abbey in 1969. He was, and remains, a hero in Greece largely for his generosity to the victims of war, Muslim and Christian.

Poem 12. A Red, Red Rose

’Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

Robert Burns (1759—1796)

O, my luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O, my luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
’Till a’ the seas gang dry.

’Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel a-while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

Rather like this week’s first poem, this one expresses a deep and abiding love for its subject but this is a more elemental and physical expression of love that will endure until the seas run dry and the rocks melt.

Robert Burns is, of course, the national poet of Scotland with his own day on 25 January. He is remembered for many poems and songs in Scots dialect, but also wrote blunt commentary in standard English. He had little formal schooling and lived in poverty, labouring on various farms, until his work was recognised and he was able to live more easily, eventually giving up his farm to engage more fully in collecting traditional Scots songs and writing his own. He was married once but became enamoured of many women, some of whom returned his affections to such an extent that he had 12 children and over 900 living descendants as of 2019.