Happily, Elizabeth I ends up recanting her skepticism, and the poems listed below have gone a long way towards causing me to recant mine. This list may not include some of the most famous poetry about love, but it does contain some of the most sincere poetry about love.
- My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, Robert Burns. I love this poem for its artlessness; you don't have to have an advanced degreee in literature (though an understanding of colloquial Scottish language and spelling is useful) to understand that the narrator intends to be faithful until the seas go dry, until rocks melt in the sun, until the end of time. My heart especially flutters at the part where he vows to come again, "tho' it ware ten thousand mile." It would take a heartless woman indeed not to be moved by so simple yet genuine an appeal.
- How Do I Love Thee (aka Sonnets from the Portuguese, 43), Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Since the 1800s people have swooned over the romantic story of how sickly, middle-aged Elizabeth Barrett was swept off her feet by the devotion of the dashing, younger Robert Browning. Perhaps it takes a great love story to produce great love poetry like this glorious verse. "I love thee with the breath/ smiles, tears of all my life!" Barrett says, and I can't imagine a sentence that does a better job of expressing the joyful abandon of pledging your heart and life to another soul.
- My Mistress's Eyes (aka Sonnet 130), William Shakespeare. The charm of this timeless sonnet is the way that it dares to mock the inherent hyperbole of "courtly love." While admitting his lover's eyes are nothing like the sun, that her skin is dun rather than the white of snow, and that her lips bear no resemblence to the rosy red of coral, "... yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare." As novel as it must to be have one's cheeks compared to roses, Will shrewdly divines that true love isn't about flattery, but about understanding.
- The Great Lover, Rupert Brooke. Though the first couple of stanzas of this poem can be a bit dense, they're worth wading through to get to the glorious stanzas in the middle, where Rupert begins to list the things he has loved: "White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,/ Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;/ Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust/ Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;/ Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;/ And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;/ And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,/ Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;/ Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon/ Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss/ Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is/ Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen/ Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;/ The benison of hot water; furs to touch;/ The good smell of old clothes; and other such/ The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,/ Hair's fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers/ About dead leaves and last year's ferns..." Only a man who possesses a true understanding of love could compose so passionate a list!
- The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, Christopher Marlowe. This one used to make me a little self-conscious, because everything to do with shepherds and shepherding has become so irrevocably associated with the silliest sort of pastoral romanticism. But even Marie Antoinette hasn't been able to entirely stamp out my affection for this wonderfully earnest little poem in which the narrator pleas: "Come live with me and be my love,/ and we will all the pleasures prove ...". Simply the best marriage proposal ever.
- Let Me Not to The Marriage of True Minds (aka Sonnet 116), William Shakespeare. Another entry from the Bard, who must have known a thing or two about love in order to pen these lines about the unwavering nature of true love. What are our traditional Christian wedding vows ("... for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health," etc.), after all, but a dramatically less elegant paraphrasing of the Bard's immortal sentiment: "...love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds"?
- Annabelle Lee, Edgar Allen Poe. What Romeo and Juliet is to drama, Annabelle Lee is to poetry ... truly, the "truth and essence of love" distilled, intensified, and dispensed straight from the soul of the poet. Yes, Edgar does engage in a fair amount of hyperbole ("The angels, not half so happy in heaven,/ Went envying her and me"), but you don't have possess an advanced knowledge the details of the tragic death of Poe's own beloved to appreciate that there's absolutely nothing extravagant or false about the grief that drips from every line of this devastating lament.