When searching for the right words to express how you feel, sometimes it’s best not to turn to great love poems. Poets ranging from Sappho to Emily Brontë to T.S. Eliot have likely already put words what you feel in your heart.
RELATED: The Best Love Quotes for Him or Her
From the William Shakespeare to the Romantics, right up to the present day, love poems are among the most powerful words ever set down. From proclamations of happiness to expressions of heartbreak, the love poem is unique.
It can be highly personal yet almost universal. While the poet likely wrote with a specific person in mind, we often relate to the words as if they were penned for us. Or, rather for the object of our affection.
Here are 25 great love poems from ancient times to the present.
Best Love Poems of Ages Past, from Shakespeare to Brontë
If you want proof that people have been pining for others in written words for a long time now, look no farther than these old but enduring most famous love poems from the past.
The oldest known love poem, this was written by an unidentified female author to King Shu-Sin, who ruled Sumer and Akkad in 20th or 21st century BCE. Today it’s known, rather blandly, as “Istanbul #2461.”
“Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.”
Fragment 16, by Sappho
This partial work by famed Greek poet Sappho is a moving tribute the meaning of love. She writes, in part:
“Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry,
and others of ships, is the most beautiful
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
whatever a person loves…”
‘Merciless Beauty,’ by Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer is revered for The Canterbury Tales, among the most important works in English literature. That alone would have earned him the title of the “father of English poetry.” But, of course, Chaucer wrote numerous other poems, including “Merciles Beaute,” or “Merciless Beauty,” which begins with a bang:
“Your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen…”
Sonnet 18, by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s timeless Sonnet 18 slaps, to use the modern parlance. Hey, it still applies to the poem, written sometime in the late 1500s or early 1600s. It opens with a line you’ve probably heard, even if you never knew where it originated:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”
If you like that one, William Shakespeare has another 153 sonnets for you.
‘To My Dear and Loving Husband,’ by Anne Bradstreet
A prominent poet in England’s North American colonies, Anne Bradstreet lived from 1612 to 1672. But in this this poem, she wrote of a love that echoes through the ages.
“If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever [sic],
That when we live no more, we may live ever.”
‘Love and Friendship,’ by Emily Brontë
Novelist, and Romantic poet, Emily Brontë asked a timeless question in the opening of this poem from the mid-19th century.
“Love is like the wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly-tree—
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?”
‘To You,’ by Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman’s words are all the more precious today knowing that, as a gay or bisexual man living in the 1800s, he had to keep his love largely hidden. In “To You” he writes:
“I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.
O I have been dilatory and dumb,
I should have made my way straight to you long ago,
I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.”
‘Loved You First: But Afterwards Your Love,’ by Christina Rossetti
If you can filter out a few words, like “thou” and “thine,” from this poem by Christina Rossetti, it reads like it was written last week. Not by a poet who died in 1894.
“I loved you first: but afterwards your love
Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song…”
‘The White Rose,’ by John Boyle O’Reilly
Irish poet John Boyle O’Reilly’s lurid, visual poem reads, in part:
“The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.”
The Best Love Poems from the 20th Century
The 1900s were a rich time for rich words of love. Some were flowery and beautiful, others raw and savage. But all spoke of love.
‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ by T.S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot’s masterful poem, often called simply “Prufrock,” is about love, to be sure. But more than that, it is about the entirety of life, during which loves comes — and goes — in many different ways.
Witness these sorrowful few lines from near the end of the poem and, we can imagine, the end of the narrator’s life:
“I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.”
“[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in],” by E.E. Cummings
Not known for easy-to-follow punctuation or easy-to-read poetry, E.E. Cummings nonetheless created beautiful works that are worth the brain power, like this one:
“i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)”
‘Poem for My Love,’ by June Jordan
June Jordan was one of the most celebrated Black poets in 20th-century America (by way of Jamaica). Her brief, and poigniant, “Poem for my Love” starts with a question that seems simple:
“How do we come to be here next to each other
in the night”
‘Separation,’ by W.S. Merwin
W.S. Merwin was a masterful in his ability to say so much with so few words. Read this short, beautiful poem, and challenge yourself to think of any way to improve it:
“Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.”
‘Flirtation,’ by Rita Dove
Rita Dove is only the second Black woman to be named Poet Laureate of the United States, and the second to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She is alive and well, but this poem belongs to the 1980s.
“Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs
and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart
is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!”
‘The Quiet World,’ by Jeffrey McDaniel
Jeffrey McDaniel wrote this haunting poem, shared in full, at the end of the 20th century.
“In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.
When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.
Late at night, I call my long-distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.
When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.”
‘Love After Love,’ by Derek Walcott
This bleak poem by Derek Walcott is about loss magnified by the love that preceded it. It reads, in part:
“You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.”
‘The More Loving One,’ by W.H. Auden
W.H. Auden’s poem is timeless in its language. Here’s an excerpt:
“How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.”
‘To Find a Kiss of Yours,’ by Federico Garcia Lorca
Federico García Lorca was another gay poet who had to largely live in secret, yet he wrote out loud:
“To find a kiss of yours
what would I give
A kiss that strayed from your lips
dead to love
My lips taste
the dirt of shadows…”
‘Having a Coke with You,’ by Frank O’Hara
This poem by Frank O’Hara is cute, charming and deep, all at once.
“is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt”
‘Her Lips are Copper Wire,’ by Jean Toomer
Jean Toomer leans into unique language to express love, like in these words:
“whisper of yellow globes
gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog
and let your breath be moist against me
like bright beads on yellow globes”
The Best Love Poems from the 21st Century
And now we move to poems so recent that it’s easy to identify with them, yet many will still be easy to identify with a hundred years hence. Or many more than that.
‘To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall,’ by Kim Addonizio
Kim Addonizio’s poem is just as powerful as its title:
“If you ever woke in your dress at 4am ever
closed your legs to someone you loved opened
them for someone you didn’t moved against
a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach…”
‘Holdfast,’ by Robin Beth Schaer
This is rather a dark poem by Robin Beth Schaer. However, it’s a beautiful one, too, reading in part:
“I once loved someone
I never touched. We played records & drank
coffee from chipped bowls, but didn’t speak
of the days pierced by radiation. A friend
said: Let her pretend. She needs one person
who doesn’t know.”
‘Lines Depicting Simple Happiness,’ by Peter Gizzi
Peter Gizzi uses imagery and language in tandem in a poem that is at once intimate and relatable. It contains lines like:
“I is for buttondown, O the blouse you wear
U is for hair clip, and Y your tight skirt
The music picks up again, I am the man I hope to be
The bright air hangs freely near your newly cut hair
It is so easy now to see gravity at work in your face
Easy to understand time, that dark process
To accept it as a beautiful process, your face”
‘Bird-Understander,’ by Craig Arnold
Craig Arnold’s poem is cute and clever, yet no less meaningful for it. It begins:
“Of many reasons I love you here is one
the way you write me from the gate at the airport
so I can tell you everything will be alright”
‘Love Explained,’ by Jennifer Michael Hecht
Jennifer Michael Hecht’s poem is one many of us can relate to, with lines like:
“I promise to try to remember who
I am. Wife gets up on one elbow,
says, I wanted to get married.
It seemed a fulfillment of some
several things, a thing to be done.
Even the diamond ring was some
thing like a quest, a thing they
set you out to get and how insane
the quest is; how you have to turn
it every way before you can even
think to seek it; this metaphysical
refraining is in fact the quest.”