The Problem with Long-Distance Relationships

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel” is a poem about star-crossed lovers – literally. The titular damsel pines for her lover, waiting for the day he will join her in heaven so they can enter paradise together. Throughout the poem, the damsel is characterized as both spiritual and earthly, which emphasizes the divide between her place in heaven and her still-living lover’s place on Earth. She is described as holding three lilies, which represent purity and the Holy Trinity, and in her unbound hair are seven stars, which are a direct biblical reference. The only adornment on her dress is a white rose, which the Virgin Mary gifted to her (page 458). Each of these details establishes the damsel’s purity and innocence, as well as her unearthly nature.  

The poem has three distinct voices: the omniscient narrator, who describes the damsel; the damsel herself, who speaks out to her lover from heaven; the damsel’s lover, whose brief remarks occur within parentheses. In a way, this poem is a conversation between the heavenly damsel and her Earth-bound lover. Her lover’s parenthetical responses indicate how far removed he is from her, though their imagined communication emphasizes the extent of their love. When the damsel calls down to her lover, it is doubly emphasized that her voice “was like the voice the stars / Had when they sang together” (page 459). She is no longer an Earthly creature, but a celestial being.  

However, her lover imagines that he can hear her voice: “Even now, in that bird’s song, / Strove not her accents there, / Fain to be hearkened?” (page 460). He imagines feeling her presence as well, saying “Surely she leaned o’er me – her hair / Fell all about my face… / Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves” (page 458). The lover’s imagination of the damsel in the natural world contrasts with her celestial description and highlights the distance between them. He is incapable of imagining her as something he doesn’t know – something unearthly. The only remaining Earthly trait of the damsel’s is her hair, which is “yellow like ripe corn” (page 458). This agricultural comparison is inextricably linked to Earth, and it contrasts with the other celestial descriptions, potentially representing her remaining tie to the Earth.  

When the lover’s responses are read separately from the narration or the damsel’s speech, the poem becomes about grief as well as star-crossed love. The damsel, having seen heaven, knows that they will eventually be reunited, though she wishes she didn’t have to wait. Her lover, however, has no such certainty. Ten years have passed since the damsel died, and while she still feels as though she just arrived in heaven, time has been passing as usual on Earth. Her lover has spent ten years mourning her death, and he still imagines her presence, which highlights the extent of their love and gives hope that their relationship will survive death.  

How Do I Love Thee

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s widely beloved “Sonnet XLIII,” though highly romantic, also explores themes of religion and rationality in relation to love. The narrator uses religious allusions to illustrate her love. The first example she gives demonstrates how she loves her partner with the whole expanse of her soul: “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight / For the ends of Being and ideal Grace” (lines 3-4). The two uses of enjambment in this sentence emphasize the breadth of the narrator’s love, which is illustrated through God’s expansive power.  

The narrator also states that she loves her partner with the same passion she had for “old griefs,” her “childhood’s faith,” and her “lost saints” (lines 10, 11-12). Each of these – sorrow, innocence, religion – are all-encompassing experiences. They also suggest that the narrator has had a troubled life. Though she lost the passion she felt in each of these scenarios, these lines indicate that she now loves her partner with the same intensity; she views her partner idolatrously, as she would a saint.  

While the narrator describes her love in dramatically romantic terms, she also provides a rationale that justifies her affection. Browning structures the poem as a list with her introductory line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” (line 1). She then proceeds to list seven of them, repeating the phrase “I love thee” to reinforce the extent of her affection (line 1). This repetition creates a list format that adds a sense of rationality to the poem. The narrator also states that “I love thee freely, as men strive for right; / I love thee purely, as they turn from praise” (line 7-8). The narrator’s assertion that she freely and humbly loves her partner is especially significant when considered alongside details of Browning’s life. Her choice to elope with her partner and escape from her father’s control adds an additional layer of meaning to the sonnet’s focus on long-lasting, freely chosen love.  

The theme of this sonnet calls back to one of Browning’s earlier works, “Sonnet XIV.” In this sonnet Browning writes, “But love me for love’s sake, that evermore / Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity” (lines 14-15). This sentiment of long-lasting love, which remains consistent throughout Browning’s sonnets, is especially present in “Sonnet XLIII.” While Browning writes of a dramatic and passionate romance, it is a love that will last “after death” (line 14). In this sonnet, love is literally everything, from the minutest aspect of life to absolute religious devotion. 

Imagining the Sublime in ‘Kubla Khan’

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” is deeply infused with Romantic themes of the sublime, imagination, and creation. The content of the poem, as well as its form, both seemingly work to explore the importance of imagination and creativity. The narrator writes about a vision of a woman singing about Kubla Khan’s pleasure-dome having the ability to inspire “such a deep delight… I would build that dome in air – That sunny dome, those caves of ice!” (lines 44, 46-47). This theme of art inspiring imagination of the sublime is also seen in William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth’s poem describes how the narrator’s imagination of the sublime is inspired by a painting. This exploration of imagination and creativity is also seen in the structure of Coleridge’s poem. Each stanza of the poem is written with a different form and rhyme scheme, which seemingly works to explore the creative potential of poetry.  

Additional meaning is added to the poem when it is viewed through the lens of English colonialism and travel. It’s worth noting that Coleridge’s inspiration for this poem came from a travel book about the East. He draws from the book’s descriptions to detail a location that is paradoxically beautiful and frightening. The poem describes “fertile” grounds that are full of “gardens bright,” “sinuous rills,” many “blossomed” trees, “forests ancient,” and “sunny spots of greenery” (lines 6, 8, 9, 10, 11). This beautiful setting contrasts with the “deep romantic chasm,” which is also contradictorily described as “a savage place… holy and enchanted” (lines 12, 14). Coleridge’s descriptions do not seem to be rooted in fact so much as a desire to craft a beautifully mysterious setting for his poem; the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the frightening create an image of the sublime. Coleridge also emphasizes the stunning, unknowable beauty of this location, referring multiple times to the “caverns measureless to man” (lines 4, 27). These descriptions are consistent with the Romantic fascination with nature and the sublime. However, they also create an image of a foreign, strange land that is consistent with European orientalist beliefs. While Coleridge’s exploration of imagination and the sublime fits within the Romantic literary tradition, his depiction of the East as an unknowable and mysterious place also reflects European imagination of foreign countries, which came as a result of the English empire’s colonial pursuits.  

Beachy Head

Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” is an ode to the beauty and power of nature. This poem’s excerpt immediately establishes themes of natural grandeur by both personifying and deifying Nature; the narrator states they were “An early worshipper at Nature’s shrine / I loved her rudest scenes” (lines 346-347). These lines not only establish the immense importance of Nature, but also the beauty of Nature in its wildest state. As the narrator goes on to describe “unfrequented lanes,” “wild roses,” “uncultured flowers,” and numerous other natural miracles, they emphasize the beauty of Nature when it is untamed (lines 349, 350, 359). The narrator’s listing of wild flora culminates with the declaration that these flowers and grasses were “Fit crown for April’s fair but changeful brow” (line 367). The comparison of these natural elements to a crown emphasizes the beauty of Nature while also restating the royal or godlike importance of it. Additionally, by referencing April as a representation of Nature, the narrator links Nature to seasons and the passing of time – which is further reinforced by the mention of April’s “changeful brow” (line 367). Allusions to royalty continue throughout the poem; the narrator details “purple tassels,” “purple clouds,” and “purple haze” (line 351, 366, 487). The repetition of the color purple, which is commonly associated with royalty, carries connotations of majesty that reinforce the narrator’s belief in the power and importance of Nature.  

The power and importance of Nature are themes that are expanded further, especially in relation to time. After discovering seashells on cliffs far above the sea, the narrator wonders at possible changes the landscape could have undergone that could explain this phenomenon. The narrator muses on natural changes that would have taken centuries to develop, though they eventually dismiss these theories as simple “conjecture,” seemingly concluding that Nature works on timelines that are too extensive to ever fully comprehend (line 393). The narrator’s deference to the power of Nature is further emphasized through their depictions of common people, each of whom are reliant on Nature for their livelihoods. These people work, “unheeding such inquiry” into Nature’s power, and not considering the “remains of men” that rest “deep beneath them” (lines 396, 402, 401). Rather than trying to comprehend the great power of Nature, they are simply grateful for what it gives them. This contrast between the working people and the bones and fossils buried deep beneath them reinforces Nature’s power and introduces the idea that everything will return to Nature eventually. While the contrast of humanity’s short lives to Nature’s long reign may seem bleak, the narrator seems to find this return to the natural world humbling and comforting.  Though this poem exalts the beauty and power of Nature, it also understands that the passing of time will inevitably return everything to its wildest, most natural, and most beautiful state. 

A Red Red Rose

Robert Burns’ “A Red Red Rose” is an effusively romantic poem, both in structure and content. It is written with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, which make it a type of ballad. The poem’s balladic structure enhances its romantic message by connecting it to the well-known romanticism and sentimentality of the genre.  

The narrator begins the poem by comparing their “luve” to both a “red, red rose” that is “newly sprung” and a “melodie” that is “sweetly played in tune” (Burns lines 1-4). These are common romantic similes which, alongside the ballad structure, set up the passionate tone of the poem.  

While the “luve” mentioned in the first stanza could refer to either the narrator’s love or their lover, the following stanzas are explicitly addressed to “my bonnie lass” and “my dear” (Burns lines 5, 8). In these stanzas, the narrator draws upon natural imagery to represent the passing of time and ensure their lover of the longevity of their affection. They state “I will love thee still, my dear / Till a’ the seas gang dry… And the rocks melt wi’ the sun… While the sands o’ life shall run!” (Burns lines 7-8, 10, 12). These exaggerated claims illustrate the strength of their love through impossible to imagine natural phenomena. Just as one can’t imagine the seas without water, the narrator can’t imagine their life without their love. The repetition that occurs among these phrases further reinforces the narrator’s vehement claims of devotion while simultaneously enhancing the poem’s balladic lyricism. 

Interestingly, these claims of eternal love contradict the first stanza’s similes, which compare the narrator’s “luve” to ephemeral objects (Burns line 1). “Newly sprung” roses die, melodies end, and instruments fall out of tune (Burns line 2-4). These comparisons (especially the one to “newly sprung” roses) suggest the beauty of a new relationship, as well as its inevitable impermanence (Burns line 2). The relationship between fleeting beauty and love is directly contrasted in the lines “As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, / So deep in luve am I” (Burns lines 5-6). The use of the phrases “as fair” and “so” suggest a connection between the lover’s beauty and the narrator’s adoration of them; while their lover is beautiful, they love her deeply, but will this dim alongside her appearance? (Burns lines 5-6). Perhaps the narrator is saying their love will remain as intense as if it is new, for as long as they can envision.  

Finally, in using both the Scots spelling “luve” and the English spelling “love,” the narrator gives a sense of universality to their affection. This enhances their final claim that their love would endure anywhere, even “ten thousand mile” away from their lover (Burns line 16). Overall, these romantic declarations encompass popular romantic themes by representing the impermanence of beauty and nature.