By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the best short love poems in all of English literature? Every poetry-lover’s list is going to be slightly different, of course, but here we’ve tried to find the best romantic poems that don’t outstay their welcome – our ‘rule’ is that the love poem must not be longer than 14 lines, the length of a traditional sonnet.
But many of the classic short love poems included below are considerably shorter than this. All ten poems in this selection sing love’s praises – we’ve covered poems about lost love and break-ups in a separate list – but we think most of them will be firm favourites among the ‘loved up’, whether you’re looking for a great love poem for Valentine’s Day, or any other time of the year.
What would make your list of the best brief poems about love?
1. Sir Philip Sidney, ‘My true love hath my heart, and I have his’.
My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one for the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss;
There never was a bargain better driven.
His heart in me keeps me and him in one …
So begins this poem, taken from Sidney’s much longer prose work the Arcadia. It is one of the finest Elizabethan love poems, and also an early example of the English or ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet. The speaker of the poem is a shepherdess, pledging her love for her betrothed, a shepherd who rests in her lap.
The speaker states that she and her lover have pledged their hearts to each other, and it’s the best exchange or ‘bargain’ that could have been contrived. By exchanging their hearts with each other and pledging themselves to the other, the two lovers guide each other and make them two hearts in one.
The shepherdess tells her that her lover’s heart was ‘wounded’ when he saw her, because Cupid, the Roman god of love, shot him with his arrow and afflicted him with love for the shepherdess. When the shepherdess saw that her love was wounded with love for her, she fell for him.
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29.
Yet in these thoughts my self 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.
We could have gone for the obvious one here – Sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ – but we think this poem, about cursing your lot only to recall that you have the love of that special someone, speaks more immediately to most people’s experience of being in love. How often do we count our blessings and remember that, among those blessings, we can say we are loved?
3. Anne Bradstreet, ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’.
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can …
So begins this short love poem. Standing at just twelve lines long, it was written by the first poet in America to have a book of poems published – Bradstreet (1612-78) had her volume The Tenth Muse published in 1651.
Bradstreet praises her ‘dear and loving husband’, whom she regards as her complement: his love is more valuable to her than all the riches of the East, all the gold in the world. Her love for him, too, can never be exhausted.
4. Robert Herrick, ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’.
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes …
An altogether more sensual poem, this, by one of the seventeenth century’s greatest Cavalier poets. In just six lines, Herrick (1591-1674) reflects on the rather striking effect that his lover wearing silken clothes has upon him. It’s not as obviously a classic love poem as some of the others on this list, but then love can take many forms…
5. Christina Rossetti, ‘The First Day’.
I wish I could remember that first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or Winter for aught I can say;
So unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and to foresee,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom yet for many a May …
Many of the greatest and most affecting love poems – even the happy ones – carry an air of regret or poignancy, and this fine, underrated poem by Christina Rossetti (1830-94) is a good example.
In ‘The First Day’, Rossetti longs to remember her first meeting with her lover, but because she didn’t know at the time what a momentous event it would turn out to be, she let it slip away ‘unrecorded’.
6. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white’.
Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.
Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me …
This short fourteen-line song from Tennyson’s long narrative poem or ‘medley’, The Princess, is a version of the Persial ghazal form.
‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ is a classic erotic and sensual love poem whose ‘fire-fly’ evokes the burning passion of the speaker, while the reference to Danaë suggests sexual union through its reference to Zeus’s coupling with Danaë, with the Greek god disguised as a shower of gold.
7. Emily Dickinson, ‘To lose thee, sweeter than to gain’.
To lose thee — sweeter than to gain
All other hearts I knew.
’Tis true the drought is destitute,
But then, I had the dew!
The Caspian has its realms of sand,
Its other realm of sea.
Without the sterile perquisite,
No Caspian could be.
This short eight-line poem by Dickinson is not among her most famous works, but it’s a lovely take on the idea of losing somebody one loves, and celebrating the sentiment expressed elsewhere by Tennyson: ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.’
8. Charlotte Mew, ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’.
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
But I …
This touching short poem about lovers divided but then, the speaker hopes, reunited in death stands at just thirteen lines. The ending is fantastic. Mew is best-remembered for her poem ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, but ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’ shows that she could write moving short poems about love.
Poised between a question and a statement, Charlotte Mew’s tender poem suggests that love will transcend death and lovers will be reunited in the next life. Is there any good to say? Yes, this is what good there is to say. That title poses a question but also, perhaps, its own response.
9. W. B. Yeats, ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams …
The gist of this poem, one of Yeats’s most popular poems, is straightforward: if I were a rich man, I’d give you the world and all its treasures. If I were a god, I could take the heavenly sky and make a blanket out of it for you. But I’m only a poor man, and obviously the idea of making the sky into a blanket is silly and out of the question, so all I have of any worth are my dreams. And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’.
This is one of the finest very short love poems in the language, and a firm favourite with many readers.
10. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Syntax’.
At fourteen lines, this poem is a ‘sonnet’ of sorts – though its rhyme scheme and metre are unique to Duffy’s poem. First published in 2005, ‘Syntax’ is about trying to find new and original ways to say ‘I love you’. As many people have pointed out, when we say ‘I love you’ we are always, in effect, uttering a quotation.
Duffy’s poem seeks out new ways to express the sincerity of love, explored, fittingly enough, in a new sort of ‘sonnet’ (14 lines and ending in a sort-of couplet, though written in irregular free verse). A love poem for the texting generation?
That concludes our selection of the greatest brief love poems in the English language – but what have we missed off? What poems briefly describe the experience of being in love in the most affecting way?
Looking for some classic love poems to woo that special someone? The best anthology of love poetry is, in our opinion, The New Faber Book of Love Poems. Or continue to explore some of the best short poems ever written with these classic short poems about death and our pick of the best short wedding poems. You might also like these five classic kissing poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.