Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview
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Poetry is often called the language of love. More poems have been written on this theme than on any other, and many of the poems discussed under other themes in this survey—“Death,” “Time,” Carpe Diem,” and “Beauty,” for example—are also love poems because poets are often concerned with these ideas because they love someone. Love, of course, is central to the Family Relations theme. The poems discussed in this section, however, are all expressions of what is often referred to as “romantic love,” a theme that in British poetry has been strongly influenced by the erotic poetry of the Roman poet Ovid, the sonnets to Laura of the Italian poet Petrarch, and the courtly love tradition that began in eleventh-century France. In courtly love poems, a knight idealizes—in fact, worships—a beautiful but unattainable woman. He fights his battles as much to win her favor as to serve his king; he sees himself as her servant or slave, and he suffers agonies of body and soul (the “lovesick” hero) in his unrequited love for her. In contrast to centuries of marriage, where the husband was legally his wife's master, courtly love poems introduced the notion that the lover was slave to his mistress. Many love poems and songs follow such conventions, but others, especially in the last two centuries, have offered complex and powerful responses to “the battle of the sexes.”


Poetry and song have traditionally been in the arsenal of the young man wanting to attract the attention of his intended. The language of poetry is often the language of seduction, glossing over the harsh realities of passion and steeping the man's intentions in the rosy glow of flattery and artifice. Sir John Suckling's “Why so pale and wan” (1638)


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Thematic Guide to British Poetry


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