This Valentine's Day, Learn to Recite Romantic-era Poetry on Cue

For the most part, the Romantics weren't a very romantic lot. Lord Byron, whose poetic sensibilities gave us the love-letter-ready line, "She walks in beauty, like the night," awoke on his wedding night with a piercing scream of, "Good God! I am surely in Hell!" (He was once termed "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" for a reason.) Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet of substantial renown and husband of Frankenstein writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, lived out years of tragedy and scandal, including the abandonment of his wife and infant child to run off with Mary. The English poet and novelist Letitia Elizabeth Landon endured rumors of affairs and illegitimate children born in secret, which may have driven her to suicide. And the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin (also a candidate for the title of Greatest Sideburns of All Time) lost a duel and his life to his wife's alleged lover -- certainly awkward for everybody involved.

In short, not exactly lifetimes brimming with flowers and chocolates. But the Romantic era, and its intellectual wild children, had little to do with what we call romantic love. America and France burned with revolution, the Industrial Age was gathering steam (so to speak), and suddenly people began questioning whether the old ways and means still applied. Poets and thinkers rushed to embrace nature and the archetype of the heroic individual, one capable of creating his or her own reality. In the process, they wrote some pretty good lines in order to express those ideas and, yes, mayhap perform a little seduction in the process.

It's the power of their language, and not necessarily the lives they lived or ideas they advocated, that make the Romantics so quotable two centuries later. However ironically, those quotes are incredibly effective in romantic situations, if deployed at the appropriate moment. For an intellectual, they represent the best of all worlds: capable of melting the iciest heart, while also hinting that you're incredibly well-read in fine verse.

Putting This Theory Into Practice

The Romantics weren't exactly subtle. Love poetry from other eras tries for elegant and understated, the lyrical equivalent of a quiet dinner-for-two at that one Italian restaurant in your town without neon in the window. That sort of date isn't exactly what Romantic verse had in mind. It wants to pick you up at 10 in its big black car with the purring V8, and drive you at thrilling speed to that scenic roundabout, where it will play violin for you by moonlight. It will fall to its knees and worship you with joyful tears, and then wipe those tears from your feet with its hair. It will do everything those other poems cannot, and if you reject it, it will set itself on fire, because the pain of that will soothe in comparison to the agony of losing your heart forever.

The Romantics as a whole generated a considerable body of work. In terms of poems you'd want to quote on command at the right moment, you need only a few, starting with Byron's "She Walks in Beauty:"

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

There's also Shelley's "To a Lady, with a Guitar," a longer and somewhat more complex poem that boasts a kicker:

For you he only dares to crave,

For his service and his sorrow
A smile to-day, a song to-morrow

Charlotte Turner Smith, another poet from the period, brought the Romantic obsession with nature to bear in a sonnet dedicated "to the moon." A fragment of that ode to an orbiting ball of rock, however, is easily converted to a short, sweet romantic missive:

And while I gaze, thy mild and placid light

Sheds a soft calm upon my troubled breast

Reciting such lines can spark an atmosphere of heartfelt emotion, and deepen your bond. It can make your mate burst into laugher and ask, not unkindly, "Where'd you learn that?" Either outcome counts as a win.

And the Inevitable Footnote...

At moments the Romantics' poetry pushed a little hard on the passion front. Take this selection from Byron's "Lara:"

In vigilance of grief that would compel

The soul to hate for having lov'd too well.

Those lines read less like love-letter fodder, and more like the motto of that weird dude in the bushes with the binoculars. Always make sure to quote appropriately.

Adapted from "How to Become an Intellectual," a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.