By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Love poetry’ is a wide and varied thing, but perhaps of all the loves in the world, the purest and most valuable is unconditional love: love given without expectation of reciprocity, love that will endure no matter what.
But what are the best poems about this unconditional love which age cannot wither? Below, we introduce ten of the greatest poems which embody, pay tribute to, and explore the strong and rare bond which is unconditional love, whether the love given by a parent to a child, or to a beloved who will never return that affection.
1. 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 …
This poem, taken from Sidney’s much longer prose work the Arcadia, is one of the finest Elizabethan love poems, and also an early example of the English or ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet. It’s spoken by a shepherdess in Sidney’s pastoral epic, and in matter-of-fact lines describes the reciprocal arrangement between her and her rustic lover.
This love is unconditional because although it is reciprocated, there is a sense of true devotion between the two lovers who feature in this piece of idyllic love poetry.
2. George Herbert, ‘Love (III)’.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing …
George Herbert (1593-1633) was the most outstanding devotional poet of the early seventeenth century writing in English. His poetry is only known to us thanks to his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, who was the recipient of Herbert’s poems. Herbert, as he lay dying, sent Ferrar the manuscript for his poetry and left it up to Ferrar whether they should be published or not. Thankfully, Ferrar saw their worth and published them!
In this poem, which begins with the famous line ‘Love bade me welcome’, Love is personified as a host inviting Herbert in to dine with him as a guest. ‘Love’ here, as in so much of George Herbert’s finest poems, is more or less synonymous with God. It’s a great paean to the unconditional love God bears for all mankind.
3. 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 …
So begins this short love poem. Standing at just twelve lines long, it was written by the first poet in America to have a book of poems published – Bradstreet (1612-78) 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, and is unyielding and eternal.
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 …
This poem, written by Barrett Browning (1806-61) for her husband, the poet Robert Browning (1812-89), remains a widely anthologised love poem, but deeper analysis of its form and further delving into its origins reveal something that is much more than just a ‘soppy’ love poem.
The poem fuses devotional verse with the language of love poetry to produce something the Victorians took to their hearts, which has remained a mainstream favourite among anthologists and fans of classic love poetry. Here we have an unconditional love that borders on being akin to the love a believer has for God.
5. A. E. Housman, ‘Shake Hands, We Shall Never Be Friends, All’s Over’.
But if you come to a road where danger
Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share,
Be good to the lad that loves you true
And the soul that was born to die for you,
And whistle and I’ll be there …
Along with the love of a parent for their child, is there any deeper unconditional love than the love we harbour for one who will never return it?
A. E. Housman (1859-1936) wrote very powerfully about lost and hopeless love, and this poem is a fine example of how he transmuted personal unhappiness (he fell in love with Moses Jackson, a fellow student at Oxford, as an undergraduate) into great poetry.
As the second stanza of the longer poem above suggests, Housman loved Jackson but agreed to ‘forget’ him at Jackson’s request. However, unconditional love can never be suppressed or vanquished, and Housman knows that, if Jackson changed his mind, he would be by his side in an instant.
6. W. B. Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’.
May she be granted beauty, and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass; for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness, and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
This 1919 poem was written for Anne, Yeats’s daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916. In the poem, Yeats watches his sleeping daughter and thinks of all the things he wishes for her: beauty (but not too much beauty), and a personality that is free from hatred. Follow the link above to read the full poem.
7. Rudyard Kipling, ‘Mother o’ Mine’.
If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
So begins this poem which was published as a dedication to Kipling’s 1892 book The Light That Failed. Because of the less-than-happy ending of that book, Kipling probably added ‘Mother o’ Mine’ to the beginning of the book as a way of saying sorry to his mother for having displeased her; she’d have preferred the happy ending.
This poem dovetails nicely with Yeats’s poem, written by a father for his daughter. Here, Kipling focuses on his mother’s unconditional love for her son. If Kipling were charged with some crime or misdemeanour, his mother would still love him; if he suffered some tragic misfortune such as being drowned, his mother would mourn him; and if he committed a sin so terrible that he was damned in body and soul, he knows that his mother would pray for his salvation.
8. E. E. Cummings, ‘i carry your heart with me(i carry it in’.
Cummings was one of the greatest love poets of the twentieth century, and his own distinctive modernist style (most famously, his eschewal of capital letters) lends his love poetry an innocent air.
In this tender poem, the idiosyncratic American poet offers a tribute to his loved one, saying he carries her heart with him and is never without it.
9. Michael Donaghy, ‘The Present’.
This is our favourite poem on this list, and ideal for reading out at a wedding ceremony. 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.
But to paraphrase this beautiful and tender poem is to do it an injustice. It’s about the unconditional nature of a love given to another human being and how ‘your hand in mine’ is sufficient enough to make a life well-lived.
10. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Syntax’.
At fourteen lines, this poem is another ‘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). An unconditional love poem for the texting generation?