“Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”
– Romeo and Juliet (Act I, Scene 5)
Whether you stroll through the cobbled streets of Paris alive with the fragrance of sun-drenched blossoms, listen to the sensuous sounds of Spanish guitars and castanets drifting in a moonlit serenade, or watch the trembling coin-filled waters lapping against the walls of a Roman fountain, you know one thing for certain: these places are lands made for lovers. It’s as if their very soil was tilled and cultivated by Cupid, the god of love himself, scarring the landscape with his love-poisoned arrows and paving the way for countless lovesick souls waltzing down the halls of history. After all, their histories tell of tragic romances and gallant epics, romanticized by wishful writers and tinging the present with rose-tinted shades. Tell me, dear reader, about lovers who can wander through Greece and not marvel at the sight of Mount Olympus in all its majesty, its austere grandeur evoking the delirious passions that turned Daphne into a laurel tree and made valiant Orpheus brave the dangers of the Underworld? Tell me, dear reader, about lovers who can trek through desert sands and not hear the voice of Scheherazade whispering in the wind as she spins the dreams of a thousand Arabian nights? Tell me, dear reader, about lovers who can roam the Italian landscape and not give a thought to the saintly bishop Valentinus writing letters to his jailer’s daughter or to young Giulietta lamenting her forbidden love to the stars?
To many of us, history – or the legends that form a part of it – plays a crucial role in our perception of our world, both in our land and those far from our own. It comes as no surprise, then, that critics frequently cite cities like Paris, Rome, and Barcelona, places belonging to nations with a reputation for aggressive lovers and passionate dalliances, as cities of love. At the very least, countries associated with exotic tales of romance and adventure often find themselves on lists of the most romantic places on Earth. Aside from history, much of this perception is influenced by the language spoken by their people; it is the breath that infuses life with colour and forms the well from which words are drawn and imagination flows. It pervades the collective consciousness and connects the people in a unified breath of expression. Much like the list of countries, however, the list of languages perceived as romantic frequently draw on a select few, with French, Italian, and Spanish dominating most often. In the opinion of many, their words are like honey, with its golden hues forming rivulets of rich liquid that fall like dulcet melodies on the ear. Leaving thousands swooning over sweet nothings, their sounds entice, their accents charm, and their words are somehow more poetic. In contrast, when English speakers (both native and non-native) are asked as to what they think the most romantic languages (with a lowercase “r”) are, the English tongue is rarely mentioned.
As the global lingua franca, English has developed a reputation for its universal importance, all at the expense of being labelled bland, boring, and worst of all, unromantic. It is unfortunate, then, that many English speakers take their language for granted and consequently, they remain blind to the trove of literary treasures bearing the potential for beauty that much of the Anglosphere has yet to discover. By using words of love from well-known pieces of literature in the English-speaking world, we can help unearth the wealth hidden in plain sight and perhaps enkindle the flames of passion for the language itself. In the following compilation of quotes, I will attempt to take the reader on a journey through the English language through the lens of love, a journey that, however brief, might help imprint a lasting impression. In increasing appreciation for English and instilling a love for it through love in it, the English language may one day claim its immortal place among the most romantic languages on the face of our planet.
Let’s begin with swans. Swans are well-known symbols of beauty, artistry, and fidelity – some of the attributes of love. Nothing less romantic was expected of the Swan of Avon, the fifteenth century English playwright who spent his life writing plays and sonnets, many of which are still recited today. The world knows him better as William Shakespeare. Though his works were written in Early Modern English, many people around the world today still enjoy his writings, which continue to influence writers and inspire countless film adaptations. Just as French, Italian, and Spanish are deemed romantic due to their perceived rhythm and musicality, so must be Shakespeare’s English tongue. By reading Shakespeare’s works, English speakers everywhere discover that their language is more than just a monotonous flow of overused words, perhaps prompting them to think that there might indeed be something more to English than meets the ear.
In many of his plays, he wrote of love and lovers, often using the marvels of nature to express eternal human truths. Of all his works, his play Romeo and Juliet, first published in 1597, remains one of the most popular. In it, Shakespeare takes his audience to a fair city in northern Italy, where two lovers born of two feuding families find a love forbidden in life, but one complete in death. One of the most romantic parts of the play involves the young Romeo standing in the shadows beneath Juliet’s bedroom balcony, awestruck by her angelic beauty. In the words repeated by hundreds of actors since it was first uttered:
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.”
– Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene 2, Lines 2-9)
Take the time to listen to his words, gilded with the wonder of love and the way it can make everything else pale in comparison. By comparing her to the sun, Romeo’s inner darkness is dispelled as Juliet’s light floods his soul, a feeling to which many of us are no strangers. In addition to heralding the start of one of the play’s most beautiful and most memorable sequences, Romeo’s musings provide an example of the light and darkness motif weaved throughout the play. Juliet makes use of this motif one act later, after her marriage to Romeo, when she experiences a strong desire for Romeo to finally join her for a night of passion to make herself one with him:
“Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-browed night,
Give me my Romeo. And when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
– Romeo and Juliet (Act III, Scene 2, Lines 21-27)
It’s interesting to note that while Romeo associates Juliet with the day, Juliet compares Romeo to the night. Shakespeare uses this figurative language to emphasize the love they had for one other. When Romeo, the night, speaks of killing the “envious moon,” and when Juliet, the day, speaks of paying no worship to the “garish sun,” they inadvertently express their feelings of unworthiness and sensuous vulnerability in each other’s presence, showcasing Shakespeare’s mastery with the English tongue. His use of using nature’s marvels to illustrate the beauty of love demonstrates his creativity and imagination, qualities that are further shown in the rhythm in his poetic words. Listen to the soft sounds of Juliet’s words; can you not hear the sweetness of the night within them? Can you not hear the music in her thoughts? Can you not feel the romance reverberating within each syllable?
Another famous example of Shakespeare’s tragic romances is that of Hamlet and his Ophelia; this time, it takes place in a seaside kingdom in rotten Denmark. Though doomed to a grave of water and blood, Hamlet’s love lives on in words such as these (which is a passage still used in many weddings today):
“Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.”
– Hamlet (Act II, Scene 2, Lines 107-110)
In this famous poem, written to his love, Hamlet expresses his eternal devotion by claiming that even if Ophelia were to contest known truths, she would never have a need to contest his feelings for her. Though Hamlet later sacrifices his love for her in order to avenge his father, it remains a comfort for readers to know that if his poem stands true, he “shuffles off this mortal coil” with Ophelia in his mind and his love still burning passionately in his heart. This passage remains popular with lovers, both with romantic couples and with English-language-lovers, and will continue to do so as long as individuals continue to find romance in Shakespeare’s words, and more importantly, in the English language. If this tongue was romantic enough for the Bard, can’t it be romantic enough for us?
Let us now travel forward in time. Travelling across the sea, to where Columbus trod and where the Mayflower pilgrims first turned their faces up to the heavens in thanksgiving, a new dream blossomed. Romance there wasn’t born of chivalry or honour, but of the pursuit of happiness: the immortal American Dream. Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald spoke of romance and desperate longing, but also of profound sadness and disillusionment. Regardless of whether you believe in the reality (or lack thereof) of the American Dream, you know it speaks of the human desire to attain ultimate satisfaction that, despite the best laid plans of mice and men, can never seem to be found on Earth. The glimpses of complete happiness, however, are present in the words of authors like Fitzgerald, who knew, just as well as anybody, about the darkness, but also of the romance, in life.
In his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, the young, mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby finds himself wanting for the object of his obsession, namely, his former lover Daisy Buchanan. By buying a mansion across the bay from her house, Gatsby demonstrates his yearning to be close to her. One of the most prominent symbols in the novel is the green light, the hazy blur of colour at the end of Daisy’s dock that serves as a representation of Gatsby’s hopes for an ideal, yet unattainable, future. It is like a wink of unadulterated bliss that, however brief, leaves you with romantic sentiments full of hope and optimism. At the same time, it is like a romantic dream that, no matter how hard you want it, is always out of your reach, forever eluding your grasp:
“…he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.”
– The Great Gatsby (Chapter 1)
There is something beautiful in human longing, something romantic in human pain. Indeed, love, true love, often comes with pain, like a lover who is willing to lay down his life or is willing to endure even a thousand years just to be with the one to whom his heart belongs. To me at least, Fitzgerald’s words illustrate the romance in the pain of human desire, with Gatsby’s trembling arms reaching out towards the light of his dream evoking feelings of bittersweet unrequited love. When his dreams are finally made manifest, then, Fitzgerald uses the imagery of stars and tuning forks to describe Gatsby’s unexplainable thrill and his fear, knowing that once he tasted Daisy’s kiss, his imagination and his ideas and his expectations would cease to exist:
“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
– The Great Gatsby (Chapter 6)
Here, Fitzgerald exploits the beauty of the English language, referring to the ever faster beating heart to relate the exhilaration in Gatsby’s soul, invoking the name of God to express his unrelenting submission to Daisy’s love, and utilizing the imagery of flowers to describe the bittersweet beauty of their forbidden love.
Finally, I want to show the romance of the English language in the words of young lovers, in all their honesty and youthful confidence. After all, nothing tells of love better than the bittersweet pangs of childhood romance, those fleeting moments when nothing else seemed to matter and the heart was still learning how to love.
In Anthony Doerr’s 2014 book All the Light We Cannot See, set in the dark days of the Second World War, the young German soldier Werner Pfennig falls in love with a blind French girl named Marie-Laure, pitting his forbidden love for her against the world. Can you not sense the desperation in his thoughts, the helpless musings of a hopeless romantic admiring the beauty radiating from the girl of his heart:
“Her voice like a bright, clear window of sky. Her face a field of freckles. He thinks: I don’t want to let you go.”
– All the Light We Cannot See (pg. 475)
Or, in The Book Thief, a 2005 novel also set in WWII written by Markus Zusak, can you not feel Rudy’s fear, noble and beautiful, of having his deepest desire come true? Can you not feel the paradox in his thoughts, his hope for a kiss with his best friend, Liesel, while resisting those same longings because of his knowledge that her refusals would be too much to bear? It is an unexplainable feeling, yet one expressed so beautifully in Zusak’s words:
“In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.”
– The Book Thief (Chapter 44)
Hopeless longings seem to be a recurring motif in these stories, don’t you think? Take, for instance, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, where the narrator Scout finds love – or a child’s idea of love – with her friend, Dill, who only comes every summer:
But summer came and Dill was not there. I received a letter…from him…Dill concluded by saying he would love me forever and not to worry, he would come get me and marry me as soon as he got enough money together, so please write. The fact that I had a permanent fiancé was little compensation for his absence: I had never thought about it, but summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill’s eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking, the longings we sometimes felt each other feel. With him, life was routine; without him, life was unbearable.”
– To Kill A Mockingbird (Chapter 12)
Their love, in my humble opinion, is a true summer romance, one eternal, yet ever fleeting. Listen to Scout’s thoughts, her stream of memories that reflect Dill’s importance in the life that was her childhood. The beauty of that summer – the majestic sun in her throne of blue, the birds that stole in the bright of day, the flowers pirouetting in the breeze – was matched by Dill’s presence, an experience etched so beautifully on the human heart by the English language. In other words, a single person filled the thoughts of another; to them, nothing else mattered. Read, for instance, Stephen King’s 1986 novel It, where the young Ben Hanscom reflects on the warm beauty of his childhood crush, Beverly, even with the knowledge that his love might not be returned:
“Your hair is winter fire
My heart burns there, too.”
These words form his secrets, his fiery passion carved beautifully in the figure of a poem that was to express a love so complex in the simplicity of youth. This masterpiece in the words of a child (or Stephen King, depending on your point of view) shows the power of love. Its potency is what drives the human mind, influences our actions, and ensures the survival of the world. Reflected in the English language, readers can see how this force, this influence, is expressed beautifully in the limitations of the human tongue. It makes me wonder, then, about why so many people consider English to be unromantic, a language dead to the stirrings of the soul.
So, what was the point of this post again, you ask? It is my hope that you, dear reader, saw something beautiful in the English language today. You might be an AP English student or just another individual fortunate enough to speak the English tongue. Regardless, English holds a wealth of literary treasures for the whole world to behold; one only need know where to look. I know that words need not be about love to be considered romantic, but what better way is there to illustrate the romanticism of a language? After all, romance is, without a doubt, present in the melodies of other languages, but how can we truly appreciate them if we cannot appreciate our own? Long associated with colonization, commonality, and overwhelming Western influence, you know that English has a bittersweet reputation with the rest of the world and despite my best efforts, only time will tell if the world will learn to look beyond English’s “usefulness” and simply fall in love with what it is – a language. At least I know that in my case, AP English taught me how to fall in love again. I can only hope the world will do the same.
“You know that place between sleep and awake, that place where you still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you. That’s where I’ll be waiting.”
– Peter Pan