Are these the greatest heart poems? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poets have often written about the heart. Whether they’re discussing desire, or being broken-hearted by loss or unrequited love, or the boundless joy they feel in their hearts when encountering the wonders of the natural world. Here are ten of the best poems featuring hearts.
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;
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own;
I cherish his because in me it bides …
The poem is taken from Sidney’s long prose work the Arcadia, a pastoral narrative which Sidney composed in around 1580. The speaker of the poem in Book III of the Arcadia is a shepherdess, pledging her love for her betrothed, a shepherd who rests in her lap; this poem sees her describing the ‘bargain’ struck between the two lovers.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 46.
Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie,
A closet never pierced with crystal eyes,
But the defendant doth that plea deny,
And says in him thy fair appearance lies …
In this sonnet, Shakespeare argues that his eyes and heart are engaged in a fight to the death, over who should have the right to own the image of Shakespeare’s beloved, the Fair Youth. The poet’s heart argues that it knows the truth of the young man, and no eye, no matter how clear, has ever penetrated that truth. Shakespeare concludes that his eyes own his beloved’s outward visible appearance, while his heart has rights over what’s inside.
John Donne, ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue …
This is a remarkable sonnet because, although it was written after Donne’s confirmation as a priest in the Church of England, it is teeming with the same erotic language we find in his earlier ‘love sonnets’. This is the aspect of Donne which prefigures (and possibly influenced) a poet of 250 years later, the Victorian religious poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who often addresses God in the same breathless, excited way that we see in this sonnet. (Hopkins also favoured the sonnet form, as demonstrated by his most famous poem, ‘The Windhover’, as well as by many of his other best-loved poems.) Donne’s sonnet also ends with a very daring declaration of desire that God ‘ravish’ him – much as he had longed for the women in his life to ravish him in his altogether more libertine youth.
William Wordsworth, ‘My heart leaps up’. This simple nine-line poem describes how the poet is filled with joy when he sees a rainbow, and that he has always felt this way, since ‘my life began’; he hopes he will always keep that sense of enchantment with the natural world. The poem contains Wordsworth’s famous declaration, ‘The Child is father of the Man’, but it’s also noteworthy for its joyous opening line about the way one’s heart skips a beat when one encounters something beautiful or sublime in nature.
Christina Rossetti, ‘A Birthday’.
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 …
‘My heart is like a singing bird’: right from this poem’s opening line, the mood is joyful. One of the most famous happy poems to feature on this list, ‘A Birthday’ is about ‘the birthday of my life’ arriving to the speaker, because her ‘love is come to me’.
Emily Dickinson, ‘The heart asks Pleasure – first’. Its title memorably borrowed by composer Michael Nyman for his soundtrack to the 1993 film The Piano, this poem examines what one’s ‘heart’ most desires: pleasure, ideally (or first), but failing that, relief from pain. And if the ‘anodynes’ don’t work, then sleep or unconsciousness is desirable – and, failing that, death (yes, death again).
A. E. Housman, ‘When I was one-and-twenty’.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me …
From the laureate of the broken heart, this poem is taken from Housman’s most famous volume, A Shropshire Lad (1896). When the ‘lad’ was young, he was warned against giving his heart away; a year later, having fallen hopelessly in love, he realises he should have heeded the warning.
W. B. Yeats, ‘Never Give All the Heart’.
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight …
This classic heart poem follows nicely on from the Housman one: Yeats warns the reader never to give your heart away entirely to anyone, because women don’t like too much keenness in a lover, and they prefer to keep their hearts back, moving from one man to the next, having ‘given their hearts up to the play’. It’s somewhat down on women, but the advice to love cautiously is wise, if rarely heeded…
E. E. Cummings, ‘i carry your heart with me’. This poem might almost be seen as a companion-piece to Sidney’s ‘My true love hath my heart’, or perhaps a modern updating of Sidney’s poem: a sonnet in which Cummings declares that he carries his love’s heart with him – in his heart.
Wendy Cope, ‘Valentine’. In some of her best poems, Wendy Cope likes to take a word or phrase and then try to think up multiple funny rhymes for it – and here, ‘My heart has made its mind up’ leads to lines ending with ‘lined up’ and ‘signed up’, in a humorous Valentine’s Day poem about unrequited – and probably unsolicited – love.
For more great poetry, see these classic short love poems and our pick of the best poems about hair. 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.
Lovely selection and so good to be reminded – especially the ravishing Donne poem – part of the seam of God as lover from the Song of Solomon through the desert fathers, Rumi and other mystical poets. Batter my heart too please!