The greatest love poems ever written is among one of the biggest controversies discussed by modern literature aficionados. What poem is the best? Which poet deserves the honor? Must the poet be among the most famous to be included on the list?
All of these questions are incredibly important and are discussed in depth within most poetry circles. The list below is not meant to stop any of these questions being asked, but instead add to the discussion. Which poems do you think deserve to be included in the list?
Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
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 wandering 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 proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
This is Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, for good reason. His play on words, his imagery, and his catalectic meter at just the right place makes it easily one of my top choices for greatest love sonnets of all-time, making it an excellent choice for top consideration in the greatest love poems.
I loved you first: but afterwards your love
Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)
I loved you first: but afterwards your love
Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song
As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove.
Which owes the other most? my love was long,
And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong;
I loved and guessed at you, you construed me
And loved me for what might or might not be –
Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong.
For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine;’
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine;’
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.
Christina Rossetti is often forgotten when discussing the best poets in history, however, this poem is one of the reasons I believe she deserves a second look by poetry lovers.
Felix Holt, The Radical, from Chapter 46
George Eliot (1819 – 1880)
Why, there are maidens of heroic touch
And yet they seem like things of gossamer
You’d pinch the life out of, as out of moths.
O, it is not fond tones and mouthingness,
‘Tis not the arms akimbo and large strides,
That makes a woman’s force. The tiniest birds,
With softest downy breasts, have passion in them,
And are brave with love.
The poem is taken from Chapter 46 of the social novel entitled Felix Holt, The Radical, which focuses on the political turmoil of a small English town at the time of the First Reform Act of 1832. This poem encapsulates female empowerment and how many people feel towards them. Beauty yet strength.
Wind and Window Flower
Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the caged yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
Robert Frost is a master of seasons and imagery. The way he relates the wind and flower to men and women respectively is perhaps the best allusions I have came in contact with.
Upon Julia’s Clothes
Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration, each way free,
Oh, how that glittering taketh me!
Upon Julia’s Clothes is one of Robert Herrick’s timeless writings. The first time I read this, I thought it was written by a contemporary writer.
To a Stranger
Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)
Passing stranger! you do not know
How longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking,
Or she I was seeking
(It comes to me as a dream)
I have somewhere surely
Lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other,
Fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me,
Were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become
not yours only nor left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes,
face, flesh as we pass,
You take of my beard, breast, hands,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you
when I sit alone or wake at night, alone
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
Walt Whitman is one of the fathers of contemporary poetry. You can see his fluid speech pattern in great detail within this poem. One reason this poem is highly regarded is due to him showing an indifference between a male or female lover.
The Nymphs Reply to the Shepherd
Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618)
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.
Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.
The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.
Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten
In folly ripe, in season rotten.
Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.
But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.
No list of greatest love poems is complete without a somewhat incomprehensible poem which uses too many grandiloquent words. Philomel is the name of the princess of Athens in Greek mythology and is associated with a figurative symbol for literature, arts, and music. A “kirtle” is a woman’s gown or petticoat or a man’s outer coat.
On the Balcony
D.H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)
In front of the sombre mountains,
a faint, lost ribbon of rainbow
And between us and it, the thunder;
And down below in the green wheat,
the labourers stand like dark stumps,
still in the green wheat.
You are near to me, and naked feet
In their sandals, and through the
scent of the balcony’s naked timber
I distinguish the scent of your hair:
so now the limber
Lightning falls from heaven.
Adown the pale-green glacier river floats
A dark boat through the gloom—
and whither? The thunder roars
But still we have each other!
The naked lightnings in the heavens dither
what have we but each other?
The boat has gone.
This poem is definitely one of the influences for the soon after Imagist movements. His use of nature is well-known but, I believe, still not stated often enough. This poem is definitely deserving of the greatest love poem torch.
Beauty and Love
Andrew Young (1885 – 1971)
Beauty and love are all my dream;
They change not with the changing day;
Love stays forever like a stream
That flows but never flows away;
And beauty is the bright sun-bow
That blossoms on the spray that showers
Where the loud water falls below,
Making a wind among the flowers.
This is a perfect imagist style poem which encapsulates the very meaning of love and beauty which so many others have tried but failed to do.
I Love You
Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850 – 1919)
I love your lips when they’re wet with wine
And red with a wild desire;
I love your eyes when the lovelight lies
Lit with a passionate fire.
I love your arms when the warm white flesh
Touches mine in a fond embrace;
I love your hair when the strands enmesh
Your kisses against my face.
Not for me the cold, calm kiss
Of a virgin’s bloodless love;
Not for me the saint’s white bliss,
Nor the heart of a spotless dove.
But give me the love that so freely gives
And laughs at the whole world’s blame,
With your body so young and warm in my arms,
It sets my poor heart aflame.
So kiss me sweet with your warm wet mouth,
Still fragrant with ruby wine,
And say with a fervor born of the South
That your body and soul are mine.
Clasp me close in your warm young arms,
While the pale stars shine above,
And we’ll live our whole young lives away
In the joys of a living love.
There is nothing I can add to this poem. It is essentially what every lover wishes they could write yet fail so miserably when trying. This is truly one of the greatest poems.