A Short Analysis of John Keats’s ‘You Say You Love’

On one of Keats’s less famous poems about unrequited love

‘O love me truly!’ as a poetic refrain is likely to inspire disgust at the poet’s desperation rather than sympathy, but then desperation can be dangerously close to despair, and John Keats (1795-1821) knew better than most what it felt like to experience the pain of hopeless love. In his short and little-known poem ‘You Say You Love’, Keats addresses a woman who doesn’t return his love.


You say you love; but with a voice
Chaster than a nun’s, who singeth
The soft Vespers to herself
While the chime-bell ringeth –
O love me truly!


You say you love; but with a smile
Cold as sunrise in September,
As you were Saint Cupid’s nun,
And kept his weeks of Ember.
O love me truly!


You say you love – but then your lips
Coral tinted teach no blisses.
More than coral in the sea –
They never pout for kisses –
O love me truly!


You say you love; but then your hand
No soft squeeze for squeeze returneth,
It is like a statue’s dead –
While mine to passion burneth –
O love me truly!


O breathe a word or two of fire!
Smile, as if those words should burn be,
Squeeze as lovers should – O kiss
And in thy heart inurn me!
O love me truly!

It’s natural to assume that the addressee of ‘You Say You Love’ is Fanny Brawne, the woman whom Keats looked set to marry, at one point. But in fact the subject of this little poem was Isabella Jones, a young woman whom Keats met while on holiday at the wonderfully named village of Bo Peep, near Hastings on the Sussex coast, in May 1817. (Indeed, Keats wouldn’t meet Fanny Brawne until over a year later, in November 1818.)

Keats was clearly attracted to Jones, and when they happened to meet each other in London street in 1818, a year after their first meeting, he accompanied her back to her lodgings and ‘kissed her’. ‘You Say You Love’ suggests that Jones didn’t want their relationship to go beyond friendship (and a bit of kissing), even though, as Keats’s opening line suggests, Jones appears to have been fond of Keats on some level.

‘You Say You Love’ may not be classic Keats, and it’s possible that it was written to be a private piece of poetry for Isabella Jones and nobody else. Certainly it wasn’t published with Keats’s other poems until long after his death. But it helps to shed light on his life and work more widely, and you can discover more about him with this fine verse fragment, our discussion of a classic Keats sonnet, and our pick of his greatest poems.

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