By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we’ve selected ten classic wedding poems and ten poems to celebrate an engagement. Now, we’re turning our sights on anniversaries, especially romantic anniversaries: wedding anniversaries, anniversaries of first dates, or anniversaries celebrating the day when two lovers or close friends met.
1. John Donne, ‘The Anniversary’.
All Kings, and all their favourites,
All glory of honours, beauties, wits,
The sun itself, which makes times, as they pass,
Is elder by a year now than it was
When thou and I first one another saw:
All other things to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day …
The first paradox of ‘The Anniversary’, and perhaps the most central, is that Donne is celebrating his and his beloved’s one-year anniversary, marking the fact that time has moved on since they first met … and yet their love has not changed at all. It seems to exist outside of the bonds of time. And this risks undermining the whole point of the poem.
What’s the point of celebrating your anniversary if your love has ‘no … yesterday’? But we know what Donne means: this is a different kind of love from others, because it does not age or decay. As with ‘The Sun Rising’, the hubris and arrogance of young love are on full display.
And yet what makes ‘The Anniversary’ more than just a crude strutting, a celebration of two people in love which fails to go beyond the banal ‘our love is as strong as the day we first laid eyes on each other’, is the undercurrent of fragility, or at least an acknowledgement of the possibility of fragility, that runs under the poem, particularly the second and third stanzas.
2. 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 …
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. In many ways, this is an ideal anniversary poem for a wife to read for her husband!
3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Happy Husband’.
Oft, oft methinks, the while with thee,
I breathe, as from the heart, thy dear
And dedicated name, I hear
A promise and a mystery,
A pledge of more than passing life,
Yea, in that very name of Wife!
This poem, by one of English Romanticism’s leading figures, is written by a husband to his loving – and beloved – wife. As such, it’s a nice pendant to the Anne Bradstreet poem above.
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 …
Arguably one of the most famous love sonnets in the English language, this poem is perhaps the ideal love poem to read to a boyfriend because the poet who wrote it, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote it for her husband, Robert Browning, whom she had courted through a series of extraordinary love letters in the 1840s.
Barrett Browning – then plain Elizabeth Barrett – was an invalid living at home on Wimpole Street with her father, who opposed her relationship with the younger Robert. But the two lovebirds eloped, married, had children, and spent fifteen years together, in wedded bliss.
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.
If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!
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’, a sonnet which is reproduced in full above, 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’.
This poem is a beautiful reminder that sometimes we cannot trace the exact point at which we met the person we would fall in love with, but perhaps that doesn’t matter when we have the here-and-now.
6. Amy Lowell, ‘To a Husband’.
Brighter than fireflies upon the Uji River
Are your words in the dark, Beloved.
One of Lowell’s imagist poems inspired by Chinese lyrics and the Japanese haiku, this two-line poem is short enough to reproduce in full here. It’s beautiful, brief, and memorable – perfect, perhaps, for inscribing within an anniversary card from a wife to her husband.
7. Michael Donaghy, ‘The Present’.
Here at Interesting Literature we never miss an opportunity to shout about the work of the late, great US poet Michael Donaghy (1954-2004), and this is the ideal note on which to conclude this pick of the best anniversary poems, because it is about looking to the future rather than dwelling on the present, which is over as soon as we can think about it.
Donaghy 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.