Presenting your romantic partner with poetry sounds nice — but you’re no Shakespeare! (Who is? In fact, some historians think Shakespeare wasn’t even Shakespeare!) Regardless, the bottom line is that you need the offer poem to present to your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day. And you need help.
Good news! Whether you’re in the flirting zone, the courting court, or the marriage mix, there’s a good chance one of these poems from the bards of old will be a fitting match for your sentiments.
NOTE: These love poems are all in the public domain, meaning you can put them on a Valentine’s Day tee shirt or Frisbee or tattoo without facing any legal blowback.
“Sonnet 43” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
THE GIST: An absolute classic. It says, “I’m ga-ga for you. I’m so head over heels, I just accidentally ate my shoe, but I didn’t even care. That’s how smitten I am.” Be careful with this one — it’s a thunderbolt that could frighten off the unprepared. But if you think you’re ready to bring out the love bazooka, then so be it. You’ve been warned.
How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)
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 with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
“When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats
THE GIST: Ooh, this is a good one! At first blush, it says, “Bring on the long haul! Let’s grow old together and get matching recliners and track suits.” But there’s also a bit of “Don’t pass this good thing up! Because if you do, you’re sure going to regret it later on!” A mild threat, yes — but a heartfelt one.
When You Are Old
William Butler Yeats
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
“She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron
THE GIST: Another classic. It says, “I like your look… but that’s not all! You balance outer and inner beauty the way the Fighting Irish offense successfully balances the run and the pass.” With this one, feel free to tweak the pronouns to suit your needs. It’s a better natural fit for dark-haired recipients (the “raven tresses” and all that)… but, heck, change that too if you want!
She Walks in Beauty
George Gordon Byron
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!
“I Am Not Yours” by Sara Teasdale
THE GIST: Hey, love isn’t always the third act of a rom-com! This poem says, “I know I’m complicated and might not seem to know what I want, but don’t give up — this could be rad!” And those last lines… oooh, mama! If they don’t get the heart a-thumpin’, you might want to check your innards for robot parts.
I Am Not Yours
I am not yours, not lost in you,
Not lost, although I long to be
Lost as a candle lit at noon,
Lost as a snowflake in the sea.
You love me, and I find you still
A spirit beautiful and bright,
Yet I am I, who long to be
Lost as a light is lost in light.
Oh plunge me deep in love, put out
My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
Swept by the tempest of your love,
A taper in a rushing wind.
“Time Is” by Henry van Dyke
THE GIST: An apropos love poem for those times when we are separated from those we adore. It’s also short! Which increases the odds of you successfully copying it longhand into a card, or, I suppose, frosting it onto a cake. I believe in you!
Henry van Dyke
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is not.
“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare (purportedly!)
THE GIST: Sure, you could always go with a classic like Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) or Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”). But if you want to stand out, you zig when the other suiters zag! So give the underappreciated Sonnet 29 a shot. “When the world spins into chaos,” it seems to say, “I return to you and all is right — and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
“Beauty That is Never Old” by James Weldon Johnson
THE GIST: Johnson’s poem is sort of a mash-up of the sentiments we saw from Byron and Shakespeare. On one hand, it’s a poem of admiration for the subject’s best qualities. On the other, it’s a poem of gratitude for having a safe place to land. It’s tender and straightforward, and it might be a good choice if you’re worried about maintaining propriety or eliminating any potential crossed wires. Like tools, one must choose the right poem for the right job! You wouldn’t use a hammer to fix the toilet, right?
Beauty That is Never Old
James Weldon Johnson
When buffeted and beaten by life’s storms,
When by the bitter cares of life oppressed,
I want no surer haven than your arms,
I want no sweeter heaven than your breast.
When over my life’s way there falls the blight
Of sunless days, and nights of starless skies;
Enough for me, the calm and steadfast light
That softly shines within your loving eyes.
The world, for me, and all the world can hold
Is circled by your arms; for me there lies,
Within the lights and shadows of your eyes,
The only beauty that is never old.
“Credo” by Alfred Kreymborg
THE GIST: Finally, here’s another bite-sized poem with lofty goals. “Credo” exultantly describes the power of love (shout out to Huey Lewis!). At its core, it’s an invitation for the reader to take a leap by summoning the courage to give love a chance and wash in its glory. It can be applied generally to all humanity, of course. But it can also be a call to arms (your arms!) for that special someone toeing the cliff of love, waiting for the inspiration to leap. Look out below!
I sing the will to love:
the will that carves the will to live,
the will that saps the will to hurt,
the will that kills the will to die;
the will that made and keeps you warm,
the will that points your eyes ahead,
the will that makes you give, not get,
a give and get that tell us what you are:
how much a god, how much a human.
I call on you to live the will to love.
Good luck, Casanova!