If you’re feeling romantic, why not share a verse with your loved one? Here we offer you the best of the British Museum’s collections of love poetry,
with a historical twist!
From Viking Poetry of Love and War edited by Judith Jesch
Viking culture valued poetry highly and rewarded poets handsomely. The language of Viking poetry is colourful, intricate and is often light-hearted, even in the face of death and tragedy.
The pure, white headband-Nipt
of forearm-snow brought us wine;
the guys could see Ermengard’s
beauty when we met.
Sharp swords swing from scabbards
now, as the staunchly bold
guys get ready to attack
this castle here with fire.
Rognvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (12th century)
From Medieval Love Poetry edited by John Cherry
The quest is the essence of medieval romance, whether it is for the Holy Grail or for the jewel of Love…
I know of a beauty, a beryl most bright,
As lovely to look on as silver-foiled sapphire,
As gentle as jasper a-gleam in the light,
As true as the ruby, or garnet in gold.
Like onyx she is, esteemed on the height;
A diamond of worth when she’s dressed for the day;
Like coral her lustre, like Caesar of knight;
Like emerald at morning, this maiden has might.
My precious red stone, with the power of a pearl.
I picked for her prettiness, excellent girl!
From Classical Love Poetry edited by Jonathan Williams and Clive Cheesman
From the first stirrings of passion to the true torture of unrequited love, from the lifelong bond between husband and wife to the pain of being left behind, the subjects of Classical poetry differ little from our preoccupations with love and romance today.
Great Aphrodite came to me once in my sleep
Leading little Eros by the hand – he
Stared shyly at the ground. She spoke,
‘Dear rustic swain, take this lad, and teach him to sing.’
She goes, and I, fool, teach Love my songs,
How Pan invented pipes, Athena the flute,
Hermes the lyre, weet Apollo the harp.
So I taught him, but he pays no heed.
He sings his own songs, of the loves
Of gods and men, his mother’s works.
What I taught him then I now clean forget,
But what he tauught me stays with me yet.
From Indian Love Poetry edited by A. L. Dallapiccola
Love is widely celebrated in Indian poetry, whether mystic love for the divine or the passionate and affectionate feelings between loves, husbands and wives, parents and children, family and friends.
He left me saying he would return tomorrow,
I covered the floor of my home
Writing repeadedly ‘Tomorrow’.
When dawn returned, they all enquired:
Tell us, friend,
When will your tomorrow come?
Tomorrow, tomorrow, I lost all hopes,
My beloved never returned.
Says Vidyapati: Listen beautiful one,
Other women lured him away.
Vidyapati, Girl playing with peacock
From Haiku Love edited by Alan Cummings
Although haiku poems are usually focused on the natural world, many poets have used haiku to capture the fleeting human experience. Elegant haiku poems explore all aspects of romantic love with humour, satire, wit and compassion.
over my shoulder
I saw her under her umbrella
just a glance
a shooting star—
in love, not knowing
where it will lead
don’t cry, insects!
lovers must always part
even the stars
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