How Do I Love Thee?

MATILDA WNEK counts the ways in which the poetry anthologies being sold to misguided lovers are perfectly antithetical to romance. Let her steer you back on course with a few helpful suggestions of poems to stick in your lover’s pigeon-hole on Monday

commercialism heart love love poem poem Sakespeare valentine valentine's day

There’s a conspiracy at Waterstones on Sidney Street. The classic image of hapless men wandering around Ann Summers’ stores come Valentime having made that ill-conceived calculation (perhaps it’s restated aloud for reassurance in the queue with step-by-step hand gestures: thumb starts with the poster, and little finger gets you to Monday night) that a scarlet bustier is a gift that reads: “’I find you sexy’ subtitle: Happy Valentines.”

It’s commonly mocked, but it’s largely the result of harmless credulity. Well now Waterstones have decided to pitch in with an entirely misleading window display that encourages people to buy love-themed poetry anthologies for their Valentine.

For what could be more antithetical to love than an anthology? Their very essences are perfectly opposed. How do I love thee? Let me look in the index of first lines. Romance, at least, is about particularity, utter specificity. Love by genre is no use to anybody.

It is nigh impossible to work out precisely what demographic would partake of the offer. For many, many people saying it with poetry is a very unappealing idea; it’s archaic, it’s naff, it’s inaccessible, it’s a cliché, it’s too heavy handed- I get it. And it’s not so unheard of either for people to put pen to paper and have a go at some of their own because, well, it’s a language that lets you get away with a lot more. But who are these middle-ground people who have an inclination to poetry, but not because they’re motivated by any particular one?

I do think it says something about the culture of commercialised love, but that’s just Valentine’s Day and it’s partly the point. There’s room for a slightly more subtle observation though too; that more than the commodification of affection traditionally lamented around this time, it’s the generalization of things that the sad feature of this display is demonstrating. That while it’s helpful in lots of contexts that stuff be profiled and rated and blurbed, the tendency to unify things under artificial and often quite clumsy headings will always be diametrically opposed to our favourite transcendent ideas like love and art that excite by virtue of the multiplicity of their manifestations.

It can only be because it’s such a normal process that we end up with the bright absurdity of the Valentine’s anthologies. But thankfully there’s no shame in using someone else’s voice to say it, whatever Morrissey might argue, provided you have something to say. So if you must go and purchase yourself a paperback Cyrano de Bergerac,  for godssakes pick a poem.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Long distance relationship getting you down on the day of love? Well what are you, dull and sublunary? Are you saying physical proximity is the element of your relationship? Send them Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning to remind them to keep the faith.

Drunken text to ex likely? Why not get drunk 2-4 working days early and post them a copy of this Sonnet by Rupert Brooke to let them know how over it you are and how little face you’ve lost.

Bit of a lad? But this time is different? Do you wonder (by your troth) what you were ever doing wasting your time with anyone else before your new found loved one? So does Donne, probably more articulately, in The Good Morrow.

Not so hot? There’s nothing like a well composed metre to get the blood going: this classic from Andrew Marvell is persuasion by rhyming couplets. If “Go oooon” is getting you nowhere, I bet “But at my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity.” will speed things up. You’ll be tearing your pleasures with rough strife in no time.

Or, you may not so ambitious after rejection. If pursuit is unworthy of them, or does an injustice to your sincerity, a dignified dispatch of this beautiful Pushkin poem is sure to make you feel better.

And if you’re lucky enough to be enjoying the space of a happy relationship in the chaos and stress of the bubble, Valentine’s is the chance to express some simple gratitude. When in disgrace with your supervisor, cursing your fate and wishing yourself like to one more easy in degree, does the thought of them remind you how lucky you are? Tell them, possibly with the aid of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29

And remember everyone: if you do receive a Valentine this Monday, even an anthology, be sure to tread softly.