The best short non-cheesy poems for weddings selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
There are plenty of clichéd love poems out there which are popular at weddings, but what if two lovebirds want to find something a little more original and honest for their big day? These 11 unsentimental poems are among the best non-clichéd poems in English literature, expressing fine sentiments without being overly sentimental or cheesy.
Sir Philip Sidney, ‘My true love hath my heart, and I have his’. This poem, taken from Sidney’s much longer prose work the Arcadia, is one of the finest Elizabethan love poems, and also an early example of the English or ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet. It’s spoken by a shepherdess in Sidney’s pastoral epic, and in matter-of-fact lines describes the reciprocal arrangement between her and her rustic lover. Non-cheesy, but touching nevertheless:
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 …
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29. 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 (though not everyone likes it). In Sonnet 29, the poet is down on his luck and out of favour with his peers, and is all on his own, crying about being shunned by everyone. He cries up to heaven, but to no avail, and curses his wretched plight. He confesses his envy of those who have more luck, or more friends, or some talent or range of vision which he himself lacks. But then, in the midst of all these dark thoughts, just as he’s almost beginning to hate himself, by chance the Bard thinks of his beloved, and then he is filled with joy and, rather than wanting to cry to heaven he now sings hymns at heaven’s gate. Because remembering his beloved’s sweet love brings a ‘wealth’ far greater than anything owned by a king – love, if you like, makes a man ‘richer’ than all the gold that kings own. How often do we count our blessings and remember that, among those blessings, we can say we are loved? If we can claim that, then we are among the lucky ones. Ideal for reciting at a wedding.
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 …
Robert Herrick, ‘To Silvia, to Wed’. ‘Let us, though late, at last, my Silvia, wed / And loving lie in one devoted bed…’ This short poem, by the Cavalier poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674), sees Herrick unsentimentally addressing his lover, acknowledging that both of them are getting on in years and that a late wedding is better than none at all. Ideal for those lovers who are perhaps not in the first flush of youth but wish to pledge themselves to each other publicly at their wedding.
Let us, though late, at last, my Silvia, wed;
And loving lie in one devoted bed.
Thy watch may stand, my minutes fly post haste;
No sound calls back the year that once is past …
Anne Bradstreet, ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’. This short love poem, standing at just twelve lines long, was written by the first poet in America to have a book of poems published – Bradstreet (1612-72) 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. Bradstreet and her husband lived among the early colonies of Massachusetts in the mid-seventeenth century, where life was hard. It was a nascent civilisation still developing.
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 …
Alice Cary, ‘The Bridal Veil’. This poem is a bride’s address to her husband, and offers a sort of corrective to the nineteenth-century idea of the wife as ‘the angel in the house’. Cary (1820-71) is not much remembered or read now, but ‘The Bridal Veil’ provides a lively and spirited – not to mention fresh – take on the role of the wife in a marriage, championing her independence and her right to have a husband who respects her:
We’re married, they say, and you think you have won me
Well, take this white veil from my head, and look on me;
Here’s matter to vex you, and matter to grieve you,
Here’s doubt to distrust you, and faith to believe you, –
I am all as you see, common earth, common dew;
Be wary, and mould me to roses, not rue!
Ah! shake out the filmy thing, fold after fold,
And see if you have me to keep and to hold, –
Look close on my heart – see the worst of its sinning, –
It is not yours to-day for the yesterday’s winning –
The past is not mine – I am too proud to borrow –
You must grow to new heights if I love you to-morrow.
Christina Rossetti, ‘A Birthday’. This fine Christina Rossetti poem is a little more on the sentimental side than some of the other poems on this list, but its joy is infectious. The speaker of the poem claims that the ‘birthday of her life’ has come because her love has come to her – cue lots of description of people pulling out all the stops as for some royal occasion. And why not? The arrival of one’s lover is, after all, a fine cause for celebration – and chimes well with the hope and excitement of a wedding ceremony. Given all of these images associated with imperial grandeur and royalty, the second stanza reads like somebody preparing for a royal visit. The speaker’s beloved is like a king, and must be treated accordingly. But another celebration for which these preparations are being made is, of course, the speaker’s birthday – or rather, ‘the birthday of [her] life’. Her life has only now truly begun, when her love has come to her. (It’s worth comparing Rossetti’s ‘A Birthday’ with another of her poems, ‘The First Day’.) Because the coming of her love has changed everything for the speaker, transforming her life into something special and rare, she feels the love should be honoured in a fitting way.
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me …
Wendy Cope, ‘Valentine’. Wendy Cope is one of the greatest living comic poets, so if you’re after a little levity on a romantic occasion, you could do worse than this humorous Valentine’s Day poem about somebody whose heart has made its mind up ‘and I’m afraid it’s you’. If you want to raise a smile or even a chuckle on your wedding day, rather than go for the more serious and heartfelt approach, this is the perfect poem. You can’t get much more unsentimental than the … sentiment expressed in this poem!
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? Perhaps. And, perhaps, a fine expression of love for a wedding speech.
Michael Donaghy, ‘The Present’. This is our favourite poem on this list, and ideal for reading out at a wedding ceremony. The late, great Michael Donaghy (1954-2004) offers a sonnet (a blend of the English and Italian sonnet form) which plays on the double meaning of the word ‘present’ (both ‘here-and-now’ and ‘gift’), rejecting the former in favour of the latter. But to paraphrase this beautiful and tender poem is to do it an injustice. Follow the link above to read it.
Choosing a poem for a wedding is difficult because it has to strike the right note and, despite being somebody else’s words, still be ‘you’ – that is, still reflect the speaker’s feelings, expressed eloquently and sincerely. Which non-cheesy or non-cliched love poems do you think would lend themselves to such a happy romantic occasion as a wedding?
Discover more great poetry recommendations with these short love poems and these beautiful poems by women. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
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.