In case anybody hasn’t been paying attention, today is Valentine’s Day. Though I am loth to participate in large commercial events and add my share to today’s surplus of kitsch offerings and honeyed sentiments, I nevertheless cannot pass up the opportunity to share with you one of my favourite poems. Amid the plethora of ardent love poems that have been penned over the centuries – Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti have written several that I particularly admire – some homing instinct always takes me back to the Bard.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’expense of many a vanish’d sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on you, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.
Sonnet 30 contains neither rosebuds nor beautiful maidens worth dying for. It does not seem to be about love at all, in fact, which makes it a less obviously romantic choice than “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (sonnet 18) or “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments” (sonnet 116). It is a sad and contemplative poem, in which the poet reflects on failure and loss. His sighs and moans are not for a cruel mistress refusing his advances but for wasted time, dead friends, and long-finished love affairs. The alliterative ‘s’ at the beginning of the first stanza seems to echo these sighs, while the assonant ‘o’ in the third stanza seems to multiply the poet’s plaintive cries till the air reverberates with them. But then comes the marvellous final couplet, blazing a trail through the darkness and bringing hope in its wake. The language might be that of friendship but the strength of feeling expressed is unmistakable. What a declaration of love! It is short and simple, which makes it all the more potent coming after the poet’s lengthy lament. Surely it must be one of the most beautiful things to hear (or to say)! Though life is full of disappointment and grief, there is an unfailing antidote to depression: You.