Can you be romantic in English? Song lyrics are full of ways to say: “I love you.” You could choose the simple “Love, love me do, you know I love you,” by the Beatles; or the sweet: “I fall in love with you every single day,” as in the Ed Sheeran song. Or the weird “I love you like a fat kid loves cake,” as the rapper 50 Cent put it. 

roses are red

But if you’re looking for a more traditional way to express your love this Valentine’s Day, here’s a quick tour of English love poetry.

Roses are red 

Violets are blue 

Sugar is sweet

And so are you

Le rose sono rosse

Le viole sono blu

Dolce è lo zucchero 

Ma non quanto sei tu

This Valentine’s Day, thousands of cards will be sent containing these simple lines. They’re so common they’ve become a cliché, but there is a meaning behind them. In the language of flowers, red roses symbolise passionate love and blue violets represent faithfulness. This poem is so well known that it’s easy to subvert, and plenty of people have. Children in school playgrounds have fun with joke versions like this one:

Roses are red 

Violets are blue 

Onions stink 

And so do you

Le rose sono rosse

Le viole sono blu

Le cipolle puzzano

Ma tu puzzi di più

Of course, in the Twittersphere, you’ll find plenty of humorous memes like these two:

Roses are red 

Violets are blue 

Vodka is cheaper 

Than dinner for two

Le rose sono rosse

Le viole sono blu

La vodka costa meno

Di una cena a tu per tu

Roses are red 

Violets are blue

If you buy me €3.99 flowers from Lidl 

Your life won’t be worth living

Le rose sono rosse

Le viole sono blu

Se mi regali fiori del Lidl da €3,99

Che ti fulmini Giove!

why roses?

There are so many flowers that could represent love, so why choose the red rose? Well, the association of roses and love goes back to ancient Greece where the rose was one of the symbols associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The rose’s strong perfume and soft petals also add to its associations of sensuality.

In English poetry, the rose as a symbol of romantic love first appears in a 14th century translation by Geoffrey Chaucer of an earlier French poem, Le Roman de la Rose. In it, the narrator receives advice from the god of love about how to win the love of his lady. This love is symbolized by a rose.

from scotland to the states

Some of the best-known lines about love and roses are by Scottish poet Robbie Burns, in a version of a traditional love song: 

Oh my Luve’s like a red, red rose, 

That’s newly sprung in June; 

O my Luve is like the melody 

That’s sweetly played in tune 

Il mio amore è una rossa, rosa rossa, 

appena sbocciata in giugno;

il mio amore è una melodia

che si suona accordati

I expect you’ve noticed the spelling mistake Luve/Love. It’s because Robbie Burns was writing in the Scots language, which is a bit different from English.

the perfect rose

Dorothy Parker, the American poet and satirist, wrote a typically amusing poem about receiving “one perfect rose” from a lover. She ends the poem with the lines:

Why is it no one ever sent me yet 

One perfect limousine, do you suppose?

Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get 

One perfect rose

Perché nessuno mai mi ha mandato ancora 

una limousine perfetta, sai dirmelo? 

Ah, è sempre la mia fortuna, ricevo solo 

una rosa perfetta

So, using the rose as a symbol of love, or comparing your beloved to a rose, is traditional in English poetry, but some poets have used other less conventional images to express their passion.

love bites!

One of the greatest writers of English love poetry, John Donne (1572-1631), wrote a very famous love poem called The Flea. Although fleas don’t often appear in love poetry, this poem is, in fact, quite erotic. Donne writes about being bitten by a flea to illustrate how passionately he feels and how much he wants to have sex with his beloved.

It [the flea] sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be

Prima ha succhiato me, e ora te:

In questa pulce s’è mescolato il nostro sangue

nothing like the sun

Shakespeare certainly knew how to write about love; his play Romeo and Juliet is the classic love story of all time. And yet, throughout his work, Shakespeare avoids clichés about love. In his Sonnet 130 he laughs at cliched poetry that traditionally exaggerates women’s beauty by saying their eyes are like the sun, their skin as white as snow, etc. Shakespeare’s sonnet starts: “My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun.” 

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks

Gli occhi della mia donna non sono come il sole;

Il corallo è molto più rosso delle sue labbra:

Se la neve è bianca, allora perché i suoi seni sono grigi?

Se i capelli sono filamenti, fili neri crescono sulla sua testa

Ho visto rose variegate, rosse e bianche,

Ma non ho visto alcuna rosa sulle sue guance

It’s honest and doesn’t exaggerate. So, when at the end of the poem he finally expresses his love, we know he really means it. This is true love. Happy Valentine’s Day!