Valentine’s Day, for all its fluff and smiling cupids, can be a stressful event for those struggling to find the right way to convey their true feelings to that special someone. Though it can be difficult, the best way to say how you feel is to do just that – say it. With words. With poetry.
Poetry, from songs to sonnets, has long been the traditional method of conveying sentiments of love. Composing a poem from scratch can be a daunting undertaking, though, especially for those unaccustomed to writing poetry. Luckily, great English poets like Shakespeare mastered the love poem centuries ago for today’s would-be poet to admire and to imitate.
Modelling Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII
The first line of this poem is one of the most recognizable lines of all English love poetry: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” In this line lies the timeless writing prompt of analogy. The writer should choose an entirely lovely and desirable thing (in this case “a summer’s day”) and compare and contrast its qualities with those of the loved one. For example, a sports fan might be likened to the playoff game, or a music lover to backstage passes after the show. Ideally, the loved one’s characteristics will outshine those of the selected analogy, and so demonstrate the writer’s adoration and devotion to the loved one. Following is Sonnet XVIII in its entirety:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temerpate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Modeling Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXXX
This sonnet also uses analogy as its key component, but with an ironic twist. Instead of highlighting the loved one’s perfections, as in the previous poem, this one emphasizes her flaws and the writer’s love for her despite (or because) of those flaws. Perhaps better suited for a valentine with a sense of humor, this model allows the poet to poke fun at the typical conventions of love poetry while still writing a love poem. Snoring, making weak coffee, hogging the sheets, talking too much or too little – these are all frailties so many of us come to love in our loved ones’ characters. Following is Sonnet CXXX in its entirety:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, – yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go, –
My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground;
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Valentine’s Day poets should not feel compelled to imitate the form of these poems in any strict sense. While the sonnet is a beautiful vehicle for a love poem, it is difficult to master, and the most important thing here is of course to communicate love, not learning.