‘Poetry’ and ‘love’ are almost synonymous in some people’s minds, with the very idea of poetry summoning images of the romantic – hopeless or otherwise – and rather highly-strung soul devoted to the beauty of words and the truth of love.
But as well as celebrating being in love, wooing someone into becoming their beloved, or lamenting a noble but unrequited love, poets have also turned against love on many occasions. Below, we introduce ten of the best ‘anti-love’ poems: poems which offer a more sceptical, and sometimes even downright cynical, perspective on loving and being (or not being) loved.
1. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’.
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow …
Like many poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ – one of the earliest sonnets written in English – is a loose reworking of a poem by the Italian poet Petrarch. But whereas we tend to associate sonnets with love poetry, during the Renaissance they were often about courtly love, which was unconsummated: the poet had to settle for admiring the beautiful woman from afar while she married, or shared her bed with, someone else.
Wyatt may have been drawing on very personal romantic experience when he penned this poem, which sees him ‘taking himself out of the running’ when it comes to pursuing a beautiful woman. He is, essentially, giving up on love – and on the chase, at least where this particular ‘hind’ (a female deer) is concerned. The woman, it has been suggested, is Anne Boleyn, now involved with no lesser a person than the King, Henry VIII (the ‘Caesar’ referred to at the end of the sonnet).
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 129.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad …
Let’s continue this tour of some of anti-love poems with a couple of poems about the post-coital feeling of deflation and bitterness. And as with so many things, has anyone expressed this very specific feeling better than Shakespeare? Each line seems to add some new and peculiarly acute insight into what it’s like. It was known to the ancients, too: Omne animal post coitum triste est is the phrase they used for it, meaning ‘after sex every animal is sad’.
3. John Donne, ‘Song’.
If thou be’st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true, and fair …
Here’s another rather bitter poem which, like many by the metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631), seems to express what the critic Christopher Ricks identified as a dislike of having … well, let’s just say enjoyed oneself in bed (though Ricks uses a more direct word). When that ecstatic pleasure is over, what other pleasures remain?
This poem, dressed up as a jaunty lyric, presents us with a series of impossible tasks, one of which is finding a woman who is true and fair. A harsh judgment from Donne, who elsewhere wrote some of the greatest and frankest love poems of the Renaissance era.
4. W. B. Yeats, ‘Never Give All the Heart’.
As the title of this short Yeats poem makes clear, the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats offers the would-be lover some advice: don’t dive headlong into love or infatuation, for your beloved won’t thank you for it: never give all the heart. It’s best to keep a little passion back: ‘He that made this knows all the cost, / For he gave all his heart and lost.’
5. Charlotte Mew, ‘I so liked Spring’.
I so liked Spring last year
Because you were here; –
The thrushes too –
Because it was these you so liked to hear –
I so liked you …
Mew was greatly admired by other poets, including Thomas Hardy, though appreciation of her work has dwindled somewhat since her death. This short poem, about getting over somebody you once loved and shared your life with, is an underrated gem. Addressing her former lover, the poet declares that she liked spring last year because she was sharing it with someone special.
It is implied that this special lover has forsaken the poet, who is determined to enjoy this springtime for its own sake, not because of who she might have been sharing it with. A soft note of defiance pervades the poem’s second stanza.
6. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
What pick of the best anti-love poems could be without this 1915 masterpiece of modernist poetry, a dramatic monologue spoken by the intriguing figure of J. Alfred Prufrock as he attends various social events? Despite the poem’s romantic-sounding title, this is actually a poem about failing to find love, and even perhaps not wanting to find it: Prufrock cannot bring himself to face ‘the overwhelming question’ (proposing marriage, perhaps?).
7. Dorothy Parker, ‘Unfortunate Coincidence’.
Parker (1893-1967) is one of the most celebrated wits of the twentieth century, and unlike her fellow one-line peers such as Oscar Wilde, her wit extended into her poetry, too. This six-line poem is about the hopeful attitudes we don as we enter a new relationship, and how this contrasts with the reality of the matter.
8. Audre Lorde, ‘Movement Song’.
Here’s a fine poem about a break-up, from one of the greatest American poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Lorde was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in the US and described herself as a ‘warrior’ as well as a ‘poet’. Her fighting spirit is more than apparent in ‘Movement Song’, which defiantly sees the end of the current relationship as representing two new starts for the parties involved.
9. Margaret Atwood, ‘You Fit into Me’.
We’ll conclude with two very brief poems from contemporary female poets. First, this four-line poem from the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, whose poetry has been somewhat overshadowed by her novels like The Handmaid’s Tale. In this poem, she sets up a simile worthy of a million Valentine’s Day cards, only to take the image in a very different direction …
10. Wendy Cope, ‘Two Cures for Love’.
We’ll leave the last word on love to the wonderful contemporary poet Wendy Cope (born 1945), who is often described as a ‘comic’ poet or writer of ‘light verse’. However, her wit is up there with Dorothy Parker’s, and although she has also written touching poems about falling in love (see ‘The Orange’, for one example), her poems addressing the disappointments of love are classics of the ‘anti-love poetry’ genre. This two-line quip is one of her best.