With Valentine’s Day upon us, the writers at Epigram Arts present an anthology of their favourite ‘romantic’—and ‘not-so-romantic’—love poems.
‘Catullus 16’, Catullus
Ancient Rome produced lots of erotic poetry and Catullus was one of its greatest contributors. Many of his poems are considered highly explicit and ‘Catullus 16’, also known by its opening line ‘I will sodomise you and face-fuck you’, was considered so rude that no full English translation was published until the late twentieth century. It’s not exactly a romantic poem.
Yet, ‘Catullus 16’ is an incredibly important work in regards to the censorship of antiquity and the proper relation of the poet to his work. Indeed, ancient writers were not concerned with the poem’s obscenity but, rather, how, rightly so, Catullus’ good character did not constrain or restrict his saucy work.
However, although a powerful assertion of sexual prowess which no one could argue against, I would not suggest employing any Catullus for your newest romance. I can imagine ‘I will sodomise you and face-fuck you’ rarely goes down well.
‘Having a Coke With You’, Frank O’Hara
O’Hara gestures towards the romantic, but whilst keeping the cringe very much in check
You know you are doing the right degree when you have an instantaneous response to a call for your favourite romantic poem. Love poetry is the English student’s bread and butter. When have writers not felt compelled to rant about—as Love Actually’s Sam so eloquently puts it—‘the total agony of being in love’?
If you are tired of smutty, and sickly sweet just isn’t your thing either, you need Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke With You’. In typical O’Hara fashion, it steers well clear of being conceited and contrived.
Giving lines like, ‘I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world/ except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally’, O’Hara gestures towards the romantic, but whilst keeping the cringe very much in check. The ultimate Valentine’s Day poem, in my opinion.
‘The Dream’, Ovid
‘The Dream’, is virtually a 34-line acid trip.
One of the highlights of studying A-level Latin was reading the Roman poet Ovid’s Amores—a set of dirty love poems so salacious that they caused him to be exiled from Italy. My favourite of these, ‘The Dream’, is virtually a 34-line acid trip.
Essentially, the narrator is in a therapy session with a clairvoyant, describing a dream he keeps having about some ‘whiter than white’ cows in a field. These cows have reached something of a lacklustre phase of their relationship, and when a crow (described as a ‘pimp’) suddenly comes and pecks some hairs off the female cow—which for some reason symbolises adultery—she gets up to join a far-off field of virile males.
End of dream. The clairvoyant explains that this means the narrator’s partner is having an affair, and consequently the narrator passes out in a kind of fade-to-black mediocre movie aesthetic.
‘To His Coy Mistress’, Andrew Marvell
[The poem] is heavily littered with references of erotica, awfully disguised as heartfelt romance
A truly timeless poem, about the timelessness of love set against the urgency of sexual endeavour. A poem that is heavily littered with references of erotica, awfully disguised as heartfelt romance, Marvell’s piece is common amongst the ‘love’ poetry of the 17th century, which appears to be heated with sexual frustration and longing for sexual relief.
The darker tones of Marvell’s satire show orgasm and death to be synonymous, his ultimate message so eloquently summed up in his constant comparison between the youthful beauty of his muse and the lonely decay of the grave. The desperation in his pursuit of the mistress is reflected in his frustration towards her coyness, particularly when he resorts to remind her of how once she is dead, ‘…then worms shall try / That long preserved virginity’.
His persuasive rhetoric cleverly positions him as the more respectable option, but leaves his mistress with a nonetheless disappointing choice.
‘The Flea’, John Donne
engaging in premarital sex would cost her as much ‘honour’ as killing [a] flea
What could possibly be a sexier conceit than a flea? This is a question we have all often asked ourselves, but it seems John Donne, metaphysical and sweet-talking poet, beat us to write about it almost 400 years ago. His fantastically bizarre poem, ‘The Flea’, urges his beloved to ‘yield’ to his sexual advances.
The symbolic flea, which has bitten them both, mingled their blood inside him, and acted as their ‘marriage bed and marriage temple’ is squashed by Donne’s lover without regret, despite his protestations. He then argues that engaging in premarital sex would cost her as much ‘honour’ as killing the flea did. One can only assume that the beloved was enticed by such persuasive and original erotic poetry.
Whilst the bush may be making a comeback, Donne is clearly an original fan,
‘Elegy: To his Mistress going to Bed’, John Donne
John Donne (1573–1631); clergyman, poet, and rascal
Although written in the seventeenth century, Donne certainly knows how to charm a girl. His poem is so explicit that it was initially refused license to be published. If the title does not give away the naughty nature of the poem, then the first line sets the tone very clearly, ‘Come, madam come’, and what follows is a glowing description of his mistress.
Whilst the bush may be making a comeback, Donne is clearly an original fan, sparing nothing in his praise of the ‘hairy diadem which on [her] doth grow’. However, it is not all observation, for he cheekily requests that she let his ‘roving hands’ go ‘before, behind, between, above [and] below’. All in all, this poem is a perfect mix of flat out praise and coy coaxing, definitely one for your Valentine.
Featured image: John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851-1852), oil on canvas
What do you make of our writers’ choices? Got a better saucy poem to share with our readers? Tweet us or comment below!