Not So Fabulous Pick-Up Lines from Master English Poets


Is poetry really the way into a lover’s heart? Here’s the Swan of Avon, Mr. William Shakespeare himself, having a go at it:

But no roses see I in her cheeks,

And in some perfumes there is more delight,

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

Here, Master Will is attempting to flatter his dark-skinned mistress by underscoring how she doesn’t conform to pale-faced Elizabethan standards of beauty while mocking poets who overstate their lovers’ charms. However, judging by the limited number of women I have courted, I don’t see this strategy working well at all.

For example, I would not have attempted to flatter my late beloved wife with these lines:

My mistress’s breasts are fairly flat

And her hair a sort of mousey brown,

Yet she makes my heart go rat-a-tat-tat

Whenever I take her out on the town.

Nor do I think John Donne’s “The Flea” would work with most women. Sure, his comparing flea bites to sexual intercourse is “imaginative” and his “a-ha” comeback at the end of the poem clever, but, really, do you think this argument has even a Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost of a chance:

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Thou knowst this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.

Then there’s Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which at least starts off on the right foot with some extravagant praise.

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes and on thine forehead gaze;

Two hundred to adore each breast,

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.

For, lady, you deserve this state,

Nor would I love at lower rate.

But then gets all morbid on us:

Thy beauty shall no more be found;

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song; then worms shall try

That long preserved virginity . . .

As one of my students once said when I told her that faculty members often lie around unclothed in the faculty lounge:


Sir John Suckling, he of the unfortunate name, creates this sure-not-to-please image:

Her feet beneath her petticoat

Like little mice stole in and out,

As if they feared the light;

But oh, she dances such a way!

No sun upon an Easter-day

Is half so fine a sight.

Maybe chicks back then thought vermin cute, foot-fetishes adorable?

Here’s another from Sir John:

Her lips were red, and one was thin;

Compared with that was next her chin,—

Some bee had stung it newly.

Jacobean Botox!

No, boys and girls, I doubt seriously that poetry is capable of melting hearts. After all, the greatest of poets, William Butler Yeats, devoted god knows how many iambs in his lifelong but vain attempt to win the love of Maud Gonne.

He leaves us with this good advice:

Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

WB Yeats

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