The guardian books section today had a subheading instructing us, “Steel yourself for romantic disappointment as the poet considers the literature of desire, from Marvell’s coy mistress to John Betjeman’s lovelorn subaltern.” In the article, poet John Stammers picks out his top ten love poems in which Desire is unsatisfied or denied. I was certainly disappointed, but not by thwarted desire, but the staid and predictable selection of poems, many of which had nothing to do with unsatisfied desire.
Why is it, of all the poems in the English language Sonnet 116 has to be stuck on every list of romantic poetry? It’s not even Shakespeare’s best. And perhaps I’m being slow here, but isn’t it about steadfast love and not desire unsatisfied or denied? Likewise Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song may reflect Betjeman’s feelings for the lovely Miss Hunter Dunn being unrequited in real life, but in the poem they sit in the car ‘til twenty to one and are engaged after… I wonder what went on in the car, between the lines. Nudge nudge, wink wink and all that. Not exactly unsatisfied or denied.
I agree that Donne’s The Flea deserves its place on the list; I would have put it at number one. Likewise, I love Wyatt’s Whoso List to Hunt though I suspect that has to do with the Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII love triangle that was going on, not just the poem itself. But To His Coy Mistress? This is why people say they hate poetry. The same boring tat trotted out again and again. It’s like people stop reading poems when they finish their school career or at the very latest their undergraduate degree and churn out the one cannon of poetry-that-was-considered-worthy-thirty-years-ago.
So for anyone who has made it through that rant and cares, here’s my alternative selection:
1. Correspondents- Carol Ann Duffy
A highly erotic description of a chaste and futile love affair between a married man and woman, who do not touch, but send letters and conceal their love for fear of shocking polite society.
2. Go Now- Edward Thomas
The bliss of unsought love bleeds into the shock and pain of unexpected rejection.
3. Love Songs in Age- Philip Larkin
An elderly lady looks back at her collection of love songs, and realises with sadness that the idea that love will sustain and heal all has never been true, and will not be true.
4. For Desire- Kim Addonizo
What can I say? She wants to be desired. Definitely a poem about unsatisfied urges…
5. The Bath Tub- Ezra Pound
Have you ever anticipated something so much, that when it doesn’t live up to your expectations you feel the most disappointing anticlimax? Ezra Pound tells it like it is…
6. Porphyria’s Lover- Robert Browning
When obsessive love goes wrong. A cautionary tale ladies, about what happens when you toy with your lover but don’t give him the adoration he desires. That or a warning about what happens when you hook up with a psycho.
7. Libido- Rupert Brooke
Desire is portrayed as a pestilence and it’s fulfilment as death.
8. Nothing-James Fenton
“Nothing I give, Nothing I do or say,
Nothing I am will make you love me more.”
9. The Flea- John Donne
How can you not include this playful petition?
10. The Toilet- Hugo Williams
You meet an attractive stranger on the train, but what will happen when you decide to make your move?