On Valentine’s Day, the literature of love and Seamus Heaney’s favourite love poem

seamus_heaneyWell, it is Valentine’s Day, so forgive the blog a little foray into the literature of love.

To be honest, this blogger has never had much of an inclination towards romantic writing. Maybe the whole thing has been tainted by Mills and Boon and the recent turn towards so-called Mummy Porn, which gave the beleaguered bookselling industry a shot in the arm last year by dominating the bestsellers’ lists, but whose influence on long term reading habits is likely to be minimal.

Where I did enjoy romance was in the pastorals of Wordsworth – Tintern Abbey, although it may have had more to do with land than love, is possibly the best love poem I’ve ever read. Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” was delightful, but Shelley and Byron are a little tainted by the faithlessness of their biographies (although the relationship between fidelity and love is a whole other discussion) and the breathless sonnets of Shakespeare could be a little hard to take.

In latter decades much of the best love writing has taken place in song. It’s all subjective of course, but I’m not sure there’s a better relatively recent piece of romantic writing than Clifford T Ward’s Home Thoughts from Abroad, itself a riff on a Robert Browning poem about fields and thrushes.

Writing about love is a notoriously difficult thing to do well, of course. Many years have passed since the tempestuous affair of Henry Miller and Anais Nin created some intense and powerful love writing; anything bordering on sensual these days is as likely to end up competing for The Bad Sex Award.

As far as Irish love writing goes, I’m not sure I can come up with solid examples that could stand up against anything international. It seems we might do other things – place (both grounded and restless), character, introversion, narrative voice – much better than something like love and romantic openness. A line from the Scorsese film The Departed springs to mind – I think it was Matt Damon’s character, summing up his second-generation Irish father: “He’s Irish; he’ll put up with something being wrong for the rest of his life.”

Anyway, this has been a circuitous route to Seamus Heaney’s favourite love poem, written by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century, which was included in a Guardian piece first published last year.


William Wordsworth once wrote that he liked the sonnet because he was happy with the formal limits it imposed. He was ready to be “bound / Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground”. The great thing about this Thomas Wyatt sonnet, on the other hand, is the way the surge of desire seems to push against the form that “bounds” it, even as it obeys the requirements – 14 lines, octave and sestet, proper Petrarchan rhyme scheme.

“Whoso list to hunt” (an adaptation of a sonnet in Italian by Petrarch) is an allegory, but any suggestion of indirection or emotional distancing which that word contains is banished by the sheer pace and passion of the lines. The deer in the royal park, marked for the king (“Don’t touch me, I belong to Caesar”), has long been taken as a figure for Anne Boleyn, and Wyatt assumed to have been the lover/hunter denied all access to her. It is a great love poem because of its rhythmic energy, its syntactical drive, the way the bitter truths of denial and exclusion are transformed – transformed by creative stamina into a work that is lifted above bitterness by the artist’s joy in finding the right trope for his predicament. In a way, the final line retells the whole story: a wildness has been tamed in the writing, but it is the wildness that has given the poem its staying power.

“Whoso List to Hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more;
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.”

A couple of great lines there:

“In a net I seek to hold the wind.”
“Wild for to hold though I seem tame.”

So two questions for anyone who’s made it all the way to here (thanks, by the way):

What’s your favorite piece of love writing?

And which Irish writers do it really well?


7 thoughts on “On Valentine’s Day, the literature of love and Seamus Heaney’s favourite love poem

  1. Yeats “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”:

    Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
    Enwrought with golden and silver light,
    The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
    Of night and light and the half-light,
    I would spread the cloths under your feet:
    But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
    I have spread my dreams under your feet;
    Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

    And “When You are Old”:

    WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
    And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
    And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
    Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

    How many loved your moments of glad grace,
    And loved your beauty with love false or true;
    But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
    And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

    And bending down beside the glowing bars,
    Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
    And paced upon the mountains overhead,
    And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

  2. Thanks for the comment Stanislavskij.

    Of course, Yeats was a huge oversight on my part. I suppose so much of his poetry is dense and requires an understanding, or at least an investigation, of other texts, but Among School Children (http://www.artofeurope.com/yeats/yea9.htm) was a fine poem about love that I recall from my school days.

    Kavanagh warrants a place in here too. On Raglan Road (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/on-raglan-road/) is a great poem.

    Nuala, thanks for those – I’m new to both. The Micheal O Siadhail link you sent seems to bring up a random poem each time – the one that came up first was this one – http://osiadhail.com/poems/faces/ – which contained some heartbreaking lines about a different type of love:

    Each someone’s fondled face. A named few.
    Did they hold hands the moment they knew?

    In Matins, I love the abrupt declaration “I’m still all eyes.”

    Thanks again folks.


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