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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although the poem puts a twist on the traditional love poem, there are precedents for a poem in which a poet takes pains to describe imperfect aspects of a lover. In Sonnet 130, William Shakespeare runs through a whole catalog of traditional praises while humorously stating that none of them applies to his love. Her eyes are “nothing like the sun,” her hair is like “black wires,” and her breath “reeks.” Her cheeks are not rosy; she does not move like a goddess. Yet in the last two lines, he states that she is as wonderful as any to whom those comparisons are applied.

Similarly, eighteenth century English poet and dramatist William Whitehead wrote in “The ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’” that his lover (whom he gives the traditional name Celia) has neither a graceful face, shape, nor air. He, too, expresses his love for the woman he describes: He loves the “provoking charm/ Of Celia altogether.” (The French phrase Je ne sais quoi, meaning “I know not what,” refers to an unexplainable quality.)

At the center of “Love Poem” is the idea that no person is perfect and that love accepts and overcomes that fact. Whatever faults the person one loves may have are made up for by the qualities in him or her that one loves and respects. One has no doubt that the poet addresses a real person here rather than the unrealistic, idealized image found in some love poetry. He praises her talent for helping others and her quick mind even as he gently takes her to task for her “quick touch.” Reversing the cliché that “love is blind,” the poet states that sometimes love can see, accept, and thereby grow stronger. Also implied is the necessity of separating the important from the trivial: Wit and love for people are important; clumsiness is not.

Moreover, as Whitehead’s poem does in referring to Celia...

(The entire section is 470 words.)