A look at romantic poetry and our evolving views of love since the beginning of recorded history.
For the modern mind, the words “romantic poetry” might bring up this simple refrain: Roses are red / Violets are blue / Candy is sweet / And so are you. Or maybe a Hallmark card with a few lines of cheesiness. Romantic poetry can seem silly. I mean, aren’t we past all that? Many of us roll our eyes at tacky romanticism, automatically reducing the great love poets of history and modern times to trivial Valentine’s Day commercialism or the jewelry ads promising a diamond is forever.
And yet, as history shows, the subject of love has been popular for thousands of years, and remarkable poems are still being written that spark something in us — a longing for something deeper than our self-absorbed lives.
Ancient Beginnings: The Oldest Romantic Poetry
When the archaeologist Austen Henry Layard first discovered and excavated the ancient city of Nineveh in 1846-47, he discovered cuneiform texts that went back thousands of years. Scholars and translators searched through them and stumbled upon what may be the earliest recorded love poem — “The Love Song for Shu-Sin.” It’s an intimate look from the point of view of a woman soon to be wed to King Shu-Sin, who reigned in Sumer over 4,000 years ago:
Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty
The ancient Egyptians were one of many cultures very interested in poetry. Most of Egypt’s romantic poetry was discovered in a village of tomb builders during the New Kingdom. One poem stands out for many reasons. Called “The Harper’s Song for Inherkhawy,” it’s an ode to life and love:
So seize the day! hold holiday!
Be unwearied, unceasing, alive
you and your own true love;
Let not the heart be troubled during your
sojourn on Earth,
but seize the day as it passes!
In the later 7th-4th centuries BCE, Greek poets created a movement of love and desire, and the poet Sappho was one of the most distinguished poets of the age. Hailing from the island of Lesbos, she became so popular in ancient Greece and beyond that her work was praised by the likes of Plato himself, who called her the Tenth Muse.
Sappho wrote extensively on the awe-inspiring power of love, as in her poem “To an army wife, in Sardis…”:
Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars
of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.
Apparently, in ancient times the Latin adage carpe diem was alive and well years and years before it would catch on in the Western world. And it’s a maxim love poets have embraced ever since: “Be unwearied, unceasing, alive,” for time is short, and all that matters is love.
Europe Embraces Romantic Poetry
Romantic poetry didn’t appear as a staple in Anglo-Saxon writings until Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the father of English literature, began writing in the 14th century (1343–1400 BCE), according to literary critic Peter Dronke.
Chaucer was deeply influenced by a group of French troubadours of the Provençal period, whose themes revolved around spiritualizing passion and love. This movement would be stamped out by the Catholic Crusades in the 13th century, but the fiery ideas of transcendent love and desire as well as passionate imagery persisted.
Chaucer, best known for The Canterbury Tales, picked up the theme in poems like “Rondel of Merciless Beauty”:
Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene;
Straight through my heart the wound is quick and keen.
Around the same time that the theme of love began blossoming in France and England, a group of Sicilian poets were also hard at work writing about love. They developed many of the common rules that became signatures in poetry for hundreds of years.
As the Renaissance began in Italy in 1420 BCE, nearly 100 poets were writing romantic poetry. Scholars and artists across Europe were taking note as modernity sparked.
Sonnets exploded in popularity in the late 16th and early 17th centuries — most notably through the works of poets like Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sydney and William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, the most widely known of this era, wrote sonnets that many argue began the modern movement of romantic poetry as we know it today.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Along with his contemporaries, Shakespeare immortalized transcendent love — believing that true love would lift someone’s life to eternity and beyond.
The Romantic Period: One of the Greatest Movements in Literary History
Thus began the reign of romantic poetry. The Romantic period, or Romanticism, of the 18th century lasted only about 25 years, but it’s considered one of the greatest and most illustrious movements in literary history. From William Wordsworth to William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, the Romantic poets believed the heart mattered in everyday life — whether it was tapping into deeply personal feelings or seeing nature as beautiful and truly worth exalting. They believed love was not love if it didn’t include all aspects of life. Light and dark, death and life, history and the present, nature and its wonders — all had to be felt and learned from for an authentic human experience.
William Wordsworth wrote “The Perfect Woman” about his wife, showing a romanticized view of women tempered with the gradually changing ideals of strength that would define the modern woman.
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly plann’d,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light.
To the Romantic poets, the medieval concept of courtly love fell by the wayside, and love began to transcend passion. They revered every element of human existence, delving into darker subjects while still showing the beauty, majesty and awe of life.
American Transcendentalists Wrestle with Beauty and Pain
A movement toward the love of all things, nature included, would define the poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Transcendentalist movement launched in Boston in 1836, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. An interfaith movement, its leaders believed in Hinduism, mystical Christianity and Kantian transcendental philosophy.
Like Romanticism, Transcendentalism was heart-centered. The artists, writers and poets who came out of this movement valued beauty, love and morality. This idealism would lead, of course, to pain and grief, because the world was often dark. You can see the conflict between an idealized beauty and darker realities in Emerson’s “Ode to Beauty” when he calls Beauty an “eternal fugitive.”
However, these poets concluded that beauty was worth fighting for. Many Transcendentalists, including writers like Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, fought for social justice issues, including the abolition of slavery, believing that morality and beauty depended on one another.
Modern Times: Spoken Word and Instagram Poetry
The tension between the ugliness of the world and idealism has brought us to the modern era, and it is the fuel for poets today. For instance, much of the American spoken-word poetry movement has originated from the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, blues music and the 1960s Beat generation poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Slam poetry took hold in the U.S. in the 1980s, offering mic sessions in cities like New York, San Francisco and Austin.
As the world continues to wrestle with love, many poets today have produced brilliant romantic poetry. Poets continue to celebrate love in all its form, with spoken-word poetry YouTube videos being hugely popular.
Sarah Kay runs an organization called Project V.O.I.C.E., which is dedicated to empowering creative collaboration in classrooms around the world. Here she and Phil Kaye perform “When Love Arrives”:
Rudy Francisco is one of the most recognizable names in spoken-word poetry and performs eloquently on the topics of love, race and social critique. Here he performs “Love Poem”:
Another way that modern poets are finding an eager audience is through Instagram. Rupi Kaur, a Canadian poet of Punjabi descent, has published two New York Times best-selling collections of poetry, Milk and Honey (2014) and The Sun and Her Flowers (2017). She became widely known for her poetry and illustrations through social media. In addition to romantic poems, she pens verses about loss, trauma, healing, femininity, migration and more. Her romantic poetry includes a piece she shared “inspired by the folk punjabi music [she] grew up on”:
Cleo Wade is another modern poet who has gathered a loyal following on Instagram. Her book of poetry, Heart Talk, will be published this March. Frequent themes of her poetry are acceptance, justice, peace, equity and love.
Love poetry is not just fluffy nonsense. Poetry, beauty and love are often linked to transcendent views of helping the world become a better place. All of us, after all, have tasted something of love — something that surpasses our selfish, hectic realities — and it’s the poets who bring love to the forefront of our minds.
Love transcends all times and cultures. And if it does so — if this theme does resound throughout history in powerful ways — then maybe we should pay more attention to that silly love poetry. It might be the true belief in love — and the power to overcome our worlds of hatred, bigotry and greed — that will save us in the end.