Previously, we offered our pick of the best not-cheesy wedding poems, but what about poems to celebrate an engagement to be married? The following poems are all appropriate for such an occasion, whether it’s for someone proposing to a loved one, or friends and family searching for the right quotation to adorn a ‘congratulations on your engagement’ card.
1. John Donne, ‘The Good-Morrow’.
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee …
This poem celebrates the feeling of newness which love can bring: the sense of your life having truly begun when you meet the person you love, and you are (perhaps) looking forward to spending the rest of your lives together.
It’s clearly a celebration of young love and a very candid depiction of two lovers sharing their bodies with each other. And like so many of Donne’s love poems, it takes us right into the bedroom, ‘between the sheets’ …
2. Robert Herrick, ‘To Silvia, to Wed’.
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 …
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.
3. Percy Shelley, ‘The Indian Serenade’.
Oh lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;—
Oh! press it to thine own again,
Where it will break at last …
A fine romantic poem from a fine Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). The poet wakes from dreaming of his beloved to go and serenade her – with this charming lyric poem – outside her bedroom window.
4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways’.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise …
The poem is a famous one – or at least its first line is – but the poet who wrote it is less famous now as a poet in her own right, and more familiar as the husband of Robert Browning, whom she courted through a series of extraordinary love letters in the 1840s. And it was for Robert that Barrett wrote this poem during their courtship, to celebrate her love for him. For this reason, the poem is perfect for the occasion of a romantic engagement.
5. Christina Rossetti, ‘A Birthday’.
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.
Love poetry is obviously common enough in English literature, but there are actually few truly great poems about being in love (and being happy). ‘A Birthday’ by the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-94) is a fine example of a successful poem which celebrates being in love using colourful and majestic imagery.
6. 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.
7. Lawrence Raab, ‘Marriage’.
This wonderfully direct and touching poem by the contemporary American poet Lawrence Raab (born 1946) begins with a couple married before going back to that crucial moment in their courtship when he phoned her and she answered, knowing her life would be changed forever when she did so.
8. Michael Donaghy, ‘The Present’.
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. Donaghy has often been called a modern metaphysical poet, the heir to John Donne and Andrew Marvell, and this tender poem, ideal for celebrating an engagement, shows plenty of, in the poem’s own words, ‘wantonness and wit’.
9. 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?
10. Mairead Small Staid, ‘In Defense of a Long Engagement’.
The title of this poem says it all: it’s a poem in celebration of an engagement that has not yet culminated in marriage. So this seems like a nice note on which to end our selection of the best poems about engagements: even in the ‘late day’ of ‘winter’, the hour can be ‘golden’ …