Love in the English Language:
A VALENTINES DAY MISSIVE
Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #8
A story. It is said that once when the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman was playing a concert in Carnegie Hall, a string on his violin snapped. His playing came to an abrupt halt. The audience expected the violinist to disappear backstage to restring his instrument. Instead, he motioned to the conductor to begin the movement again. Then, through sheer genius and determination, he proceeded to play the entire length of the piece on only three strings. The audience was stunned. He silenced them with one simple sentence: “The challenge in life is to make music with what remains.”
In the wake of tragedy or true love, both of which leave us at a loss for words, we look for the terms that can express something meaningful in the face of the unfathomable. The word love comes from the Old English lufian, “to feel love for, cherish, show love to; delight in, approve.” Sources say that the romantic use of the word to mean “being in love” dates back to the mid-thirteenth century.
When it comes to expressing love in our time—and I write here of the word itself—the English language harbors some of the qualities of that three-stringed violin. According to one set of rhyming dictionaries online, Spanish poets have 636 words at their disposal to rhyme with amor,. The French amour has 928. The English love, however, has a mere 6: glove, above, dove, shove, of, and thereof. A friend, George McClure, suggested we might add “.gov”. Lufian would certainly have made for an easier rhyme, but love is what remains. As my friend Carolyn Wells put it, “They don’t call them Romance languages for nothing.”
The poet Bob Holman simply suggests new pronunciations for English. “What I’d like to see is love rhyme with stove, ’cause that’s what heats it up and gets it cookin’.”
The challenge for the poets writing in English is to create poems using the words at hand. And yet the best English-language poets compose beautiful music using just those six rhyming words. They find ingenious ways to turn what my wife, folklorist Amanda Dargan, calls a “creative constraint” to their advantage.
William Shakespeare (1564–1616), from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: act II, scene II
Not Hermia, but Helena I love:
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861), from “Sonnet XV”
Beholding, besides love, the end of love
Hearing oblivion beyond memory
As one who sits and gazes from above,
Over the rivers to the bitter sea.
William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), from his exquisite poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
English words don’t rhyme as easily as words in other languages, particularly Romance languages, in which conjugation and gender are expressed in easily rhymable suffixes. Often, translating poets who write in seamless rhyme from other languages can strain the syntax and result in the poem sounding sing-songy in English. Most contemporary English-language poets forego rhyme, but songwriters, beginning at least with Stephen Foster, have rarely shied away from it.
Stephen Foster (1826–1864), from “I Would Not Die in Springtime”
… let me die in Winter
When night hangs dark above,
And cold the snow is lying
On bosoms that we love
Ah! may the wind at midnight,
That bloweth from the sea,
Chant mildly, softly, sweetly
A requiem for me.
Billie Holiday, “Like Someone in Love” (1957)
Each time I look at you,
I’m limp as a glove,
And feeling like someone in love
The Everly Brothers, from “Bye, Bye Love” (1957) love.
I´m a-through with romance, I´m a-through with love
I´m through with a-countin´ the stars above
Dolly Parton, from “Coat of Many Colors” (1971)
Momma sewed the rags together
Sewin’ every piece with love
She made my coat of many colors
That I was so proud of
Def Leppard, from “Fractured Love” (1993)
Fractured love, fractured love
Iron fist in a velvet glove
50 Cent, from “Get Up” (2008)
I came to bring you that California love
And a lil’ New York hatin’
It’s all of the above
Certainly the great songwriters of the twentieth century have been undaunted by the limited rhymes for love.
Bob Dylan, from “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (1975)
Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I Iove
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.
Some have also ingeniously used the ghazal style of using the same last word in each line, and rhyming the next to last. They use the same end refrain and a rhyming word before it, or simply use identical rhymes.
Lyle Lovett, from “Farther Down the Line” (1986)
One day she’ll say she loves you
And the next she’ll be tired of you
And push’ll always come to shove you
On that midnight rodeo
Tammy Wynette, from “They Call It Making Love” (1979)
And they call it makin’ love
Makin’ love, makin’ love
Throw it down, pick it up
Dress it up and call it love
Susanna Lee, a member of my Brevitas poetry group, commented in rhyme that there are ways around rhyming the word love:
If there were more
rhymes for “love,”
I’d be sure
to write poems galore
about my sweet dove, Lenore!
Maybe there are more.
Shall I go door to door,
search cover to cover,
from edge to the core,
the tomes of poems
to discover if there are more
rhyming words for this lover to use,
to write of love?
I’ll pace the floor,
explore the world
from shore to shore,
and surely I’ll find just one more
word that rhymes with “love.”
Shall I use my head, instead,
pore over a thesaurus?
Or is that a chore,
too much for us,
just simple poets?
If I choose instead a word for love,
such as “adore,”
I am sure to find many more
words that rhyme,
like “lore,” “gore,” “nor,” and “door.”
I hear you.
“Adore” is not the word you’re thinking of.
You want more
words that rhyme with “love,”
and nothing more.
So how do I love you? Let me count the words…that rhyme. What does the fact that there are only six words that rhyme with love tell us about love in the English language? “Maybe because nothing can even come near love,” says the poet Sahar Muradi, “it’s fitting that so few things rhyme with it—it’s either love or nothing.”
There may be only six words that rhyme with love, but often there are no words to express how much we love one another. A child asks his mother how much she loves him. She spreads her arms as wide as she can and says, “This much”—as far as she can reach, but more. Then she throws her arms around him like a circle around the sun to show just how much she loves her child.
Fortunately, we don’t have to express our love for one another in rhyme, which would be particularly difficult in English. Certainly, sometimes it is not easy to say the three words that we do have: I love you. There are not six ways to say it, only one. And we water it down by saying, “Love you,” “Luv you,” “or, in writing, “Much love” or “Lotsa love,.” or “ILY.” Some of us are willing to sign some of our letters “Love,” while others feel that it might be sending the wrong message. How often have you wondered, “Will she sign her letter ‘Love’?”
We can all find ways to express our love within the limits of the English language, where there can be six words that rhyme with it, three words that say it, or no words at all. Perhaps this Valentine’s Day, we can find those three words and tell someone, “I love you.” Or, as my high school girlfriend Tilly Lavenas signed a yearbook inscription to me, “I love you madly, endlessly, insufferably, etc.”
In the words written by my wife, Amanda, for her song “Better Angels,” she finds still new and ingenious ways to rhyme the words for love.
Reach for those who love you, angels
Let them fly above you, angels
Singing like a dove, your angels
Hallelujah by and by
* * * *
“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.
Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to firstname.lastname@example.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.