The Right Words

When romance writers are looking around for inspiration, we frequently look no further than the poets. Poetry uses 100 words to say what we take 400 pages to approximate. Poets wrestle the universe for each word, each line, each couplet, while we careen about with chapters and scenes and trilogies.

It isn’t my gift to write poetry, though I’ve taken a few stabs at it. My favorite volume of poetry is, “Sleeping Preacher,” by Julia Kasdorf. Julia was raised “plain coat” Mennonite, and this volume of her poems reflects that perspective, for both good and ill.

I turned to poetry for the sixth book in the Windham series, which features Lady Louisa Windham and Sir Joseph Carrington, her “Christmas knight.” Joseph is plainspoken, a gentleman farmer without pretenses or presumptions and yet, he adores Louisa and sees her for the complicated, brilliant, passionate woman she is.

On their wedding night, Joseph does not tell Louisa he loves her. Eventually he does (of course he does), but early in the relationship he will not allow himself to burden her with his maudlin sentiment. In the dark, holding his wife in his arms, he recites her a poem instead:


To His Mistress by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester


Why dost thou shade thy lovely face? Oh why

Does that eclipsing hand of thine deny

The sunshine of the Sun’s enlivening eye?


Without thy light what light remains to me?

Thou art my life, my way, my light’s in thee;

I love, I move, and by thy beams I see.


Thou art my life—and if thou but turn away

My life’s a thousand deaths. Thou art my way—

Without thee, Love, I travel not but stray.


My light thou art—without thy glorious sight

My eyes are darken’d with eternal night.

My Love, thou art my way, my life, my light.


Louisa is helplessly smitten, though she doesn’t say she loves him either—yet.

Has anyone read poetry to you? Has anyone given you a book of poetry that you’ve treasured all the years since? Are there a couple lines of poetry you’d have to work into any romance with your name on it? Valentine’s Day is coming—let’s hear a few titles, maybe a few lines of your favorites.

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39 comments on “The Right Words

  1. Alas, no one has read poetry to me. And no one has given me a book of poetry. And if there is poetry that I would include in a book it would have to be a modern day setting because the poets that I tend to like are generally mid-twentieth century writers. Also, I don’t know that any of my favorite poems are about love. It would just take a lot of talent/imagination to work William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” or e e cummings’s “Buffalo Bill’s” into a love story.

    • The guys and gals from Days of Yore do not have a corner on the versification of tender sentiment, thank goodness. Keats ain’t for everybody, and just knowing that the guy died so young, so far from his beloved makes me reach past him for old Wordsworth and his daffodils when I’m in a dismal moods.

      Ogden Nash’s “Reprise,” Pablo Neruda’s “I Do Not Love You,” (From 100 Love Sonnets), Langton Hughes’ “When Sue Wears Red.” Judith Viorst’s “True Love.” …. There’s good stuff in your territory, Sabrina. Reminds me of an anthology I have around here somewhere…

  2. I have never been given a poetry book or had any read to me. But I do enjoy writing my own poems over the last eight years which I treasure because the memories associated with them. How ever the one poet that I like is Robert Burns; I am a fan of the old english style of poetry. I would have to say to be honest I cannot think of a love poem to quote however this thought did: “roses are red and violets are blue” for a love so grand simply won’t do. I am really bad with valentines day stuff (lack of practice I guess ).

      • Valentine’s Day isn’t my best holiday, either, Sammy. My favorite poets are the English romantics, but much of what they wrote was more pastoral than amorous. They were romantic in the sense that their poetry is for the emotions and the senses than the thinking brain. Rabbie Burns deserves a place on that continuum, too.

        Have you ever considered publishing your poems?

      • I have wanted to but am stuck trying to find a cheaper alternate to self publishing which will be great since at the request of a friend I am attempting to write a novel; stuck on pg 60 and trying to find a way to get the story to move forward . So much easier to read novels than right them (that is just my opinion ).

      • Sammy, welcome to novel writing! We ALL get stuck on page 60, or page 160, or page 260. For my part the first five books were in some ways a lot harder than the last five because the only way to learn to write books is to push, pull or drag them out of your imagination, one word at a time. How you accomplish that will different from how anybody else does, and yet, everybody has a some ideas for you to try. Best of luck. If you have questions,just email me: [email protected].

    • Wilmot was considered at Libertine poet, though he was also a war hero and (mostly) a favorite of Charles II. He died young (in his thirties) very likely of social diseases, but also much lamented. At least we have his poetry.

      • It appears that he also kidnapped the woman he wanted for his wife when she refused him, and was thrown in the Tower of London for a couple weeks. The lady did marry him two years later. He also wrote some other poems definitely not swoon-worthy, but this one is a winner.

      • and apparently he is the inspiration for the hero of “Libertine’s Kiss” by Judith James, which is one amazing book.

      • Did not know that. Judith was held up to me by my editor as an example. “Read “Broken Wing.” THAT’s how you torture a hero. SEE?” Given that Lord John was everything bad associated with a Libertine, I’ll bet it’s an interesting book.

    • If you read the Wiki article on him then you come across the allegation that he impersonated a doctor who could cure infertility… shameless, but you can’t help but admire his dedication to his own pleasures. He would have made an interesting old man (assuming tertiary syphilis didn’t get hold of him).

  3. My parents have a copy of “Dared and Done” a biography of Robert and Elizabeth’s great, happy love, with excerpts from many of their letters. I think Elizabeth penned, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” in her Sonnets from the Portuguese, but Robert go in his licks too:

    I love you, not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.
    I love you not only for what you are making of yourself, but for what you are making of me…

    It gets even stronger from there.

      • Elizabeth was considered by far the better known and more successful poet when Robert started secretly courting her. I love, adore, and treasure his first letter to her: “I love your poetry, Miss Barrett, and I love you too.” THAT is conviction, that is not trotting up on your charger, but galloping headlong into the affray. Go Robert!

  4. I have never read poetry. But, I love Jane Austen her books make me tear up as does yours Ms.Burrowes to me yours and Janes work are poetry:)

  5. That is quite a compliment, Gail. I’m not poetry-hound some people are, but I like the efficiency of poetry, the way it can focus so cleanly on a single sentiment, a scene, and convey much with few words. Some song lyrics are like that, and that’s poetry too!

    • Songs are definitely poetry. I think these lyrics from a Restless Heart song are particularly romantic:

      Changing my life, with your love,
      Has been so easy for you,
      And I amazed, every day, and I’ll need you.
      ‘Til all the mountains are valleys,
      And every ocean is dry, my love.

      I’ll be yours until the sun doesn’t shine,
      ‘Til time stands still
      Until the winds don’t blow,
      When today is just a memory to me, I know.
      I’ll still be lovin, I’ll still be lovin you.
      I’ll still be lovin you.

      Never before did I know,
      How lovin someone could be,
      Now I can see, you and me, for a lifetime.
      Until the last moon’s rising,
      You’ll see the love in my eyes, my love.

      I’ll be yours until the sun doesn’t shine,
      ‘Til time stands still,
      Until the winds don’t blow.
      When today is just a memory to me, I know.
      I’ll still be lovin, I’ll still be lovin you.

  6. I’m afraid poetry hasn’t been a huge part of my life although I read all the manatory poems in school. I actually remember enjoying Evangeline and Robert Frost. I’m sure there’s a few more out there.I married at 18 and there is no way my husband would quote poetry to me but it does sound romantic.

  7. My Mother gave me a collection of poetry when I was 13. The following has remained my favorite.

    The Touch of the Master’s Hand

    ‘Twas battered and scarred,
    And the auctioneer thought it
    hardly worth his while
    To waste his time on the old violin,
    but he held it up with a smile.

    “What am I bid, good people”, he cried,
    “Who starts the bidding for me?”
    “One dollar, one dollar, Do I hear two?”
    “Two dollars, who makes it three?”
    “Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three,”

    But, No,
    From the room far back a gray bearded man
    Came forward and picked up the bow,
    Then wiping the dust from the old violin
    And tightening up the strings,
    He played a melody, pure and sweet
    As sweet as the angel sings.

    The music ceased and the auctioneer
    With a voice that was quiet and low,
    Said “What now am I bid for this old violin?”
    As he held it aloft with its’ bow.

    “One thousand, one thousand, Do I hear two?”
    “Two thousand, Who makes it three?”
    “Three thousand once, three thousand twice,
    Going and gone”, said he.

    The audience cheered,
    But some of them cried,
    “We just don’t understand.”
    “What changed its’ worth?”
    Swift came the reply.
    “The Touch of the Masters Hand.”

    And many a man with life out of tune
    All battered with bourbon and gin
    Is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd
    Much like that old violin

    A mess of pottage, a glass of wine,
    A game and he travels on.
    He is going once, he is going twice,
    He is going and almost gone.

    But the Master comes,
    And the foolish crowd never can quite understand,
    The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
    By the Touch of the Masters’ Hand.

    Myra Brooks Welch

  8. What a wonderful, wonderful poem. What an analogy. Simple, profound, lovely. I will keep it near my desk in the law office, because every day in the child welfare biz, you see people who are “almost gone.” Sometimes you see them in the mirror too.
    Many thanks, to you to Myra.

    • I am so grateful my mother gave me that first collection of poetry. Poetry has always enriched my life especially the epic poems. The Song of Hiawatha, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere so many wonderful poems. And one maybe for you to use in a future work – The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. It is to long to post here but you can find it on-line the opening stanza is:

      The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
      The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
      The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
      And the highwayman came riding—
      The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

      And the lines that still give me chill bumps 🙂

      Then look for me by moonlight,
      Watch for me by moonlight,
      I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.

      • What about the tlot, tlot, tlot!!! You can’t leave that out. There’s an upcoming release loosely based on this poem called “The Innkeeper’s Black-Haired Daughter,” but THAT book has a happy ending, unlike this poem.

        When I was in eighth grade, we had to memorize a poem, and to showboat, one kid in the class managed to memorize “The Highwayman.” Took me years to appreciate the poem after he’d subjected it to Torture by Monotone.

  9. Hey there,

    I went through a period of time as a teen that I adored poetry. My favourite has always been Elizabeth Barret browning’s “How do I love Thee”
    Now that I am older I find I don’t inderstand it or maybe just don’t have the patience in interpreting it lol Plain words at all times lol
    Thanks for sharing the post!

    Leanne G.

    • I have the same trouble with the Shakespeare sonnets. Some of them I get, some of them I love, but some of them read like an inside joke in a strange dialect, where I know neither the joke nor the dialect. (Don’t tell EJ I said that!)

  10. I like Shakespeare’s sonnets, a couple of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pieces from Sonnets of the Portuguese, and some contemporary Native American poetry by Luci Tapahonso (Blue Horses come rushing in) Favorite movie poetry is Julia Stiles adaptation in 10 Things I hate about you (Taming of the Shrew at a modern day Seattle High School).

    Never received poetry. Perhaps one day.

    • Larisa, I’m thinking you should give some poetry, then. I give Sleeping Preacher to people because, though it’s Mennonite, it’s also just Us. My favorite poem in the book is entitled, “When Our Women Go Crazy,” and talks about how the canned peaches have to be labeled EXACTLY the same, and lined up just so, then finishes with, “And this also how our women behave when they are sane.” Whose grandma doesn’t fit that description?

  11. As an English Lit major turned high school English teacher, I’ve seen my share of poetry…the problem is, though I initially adored works such as “She Walks in Beauty” I have a hard time enjoying the poetry from men like Byron and Shelley since I think they were rather horrible, selfish men in reality (I guess I don’t manage to separate the art from the artist very well). My husband “speaks” computer languages and is not much for poetry – but he manages to tell me he loves me without it. Once upon a time I dated an artist who painted a portrait of me inscribed with a poem he composed. Sigh…it was nice to have had that moment – but I am much better off with someone like my husband – we are opposites in so many ways – and it works for us! I very much enjoy Shakespeare, one of my personal favorites is from e.e. cummings: “I Carry Your Heart” (though Cummings had a colorful personal life too…I suppose all artists do…it’s the fount they draw from, eh?)

    • Melonie, I know what you mean about the artist’s personal life coloring his or her contribution. Higher up in the comments we discuss John Wilmot, and what a rascal he was. Rascal is polite when we’re discussing a man who’d impersonate a doctor to take advantage of women for whom infertility was an end-of-the-world matter–and he was probably spreading terminal diseases along with his genes.

      I don’t believe that to be creative you have to live an irresponsible life. Rather the opposite, the more discipline you can bring to your creativity (discipline being not the same thing as rigidity), the more likely you are to enjoy your art and make the best of it.

  12. Hi Grace, 7 years ago my mother bought me the compilation of british peom that was including Lord Byron she walks in beauty. I treasured that book so much and feels like this poem was created for women everywhere to appreciate the beauty inside them and in life. I wish one day I can find a guy that can create wonderful poem just for me HMMM that would be very delicious:)

    • But please for the love of God can we pattern him on somebody other than old Byron, who strikes me as imprudent on his best days, and a selfish toad at other times. The sad thing about Byron, from my perspective, is the speculation that he might have survived his wounds in Greece had he been spared the “proper” medical care available at the time.

  13. I read a lot of poetry as a kid and teen–it helps to read it aloud. Not sing songy either, but follow the punctuation as intended by the author.

    Thanks for giving a little history!

    • Louisa’s swain Joseph is not a polished man, his voice is sort of growly, until he reads her poetry, and then… she has never heard anything more mesmerizingly beautiful from a man. Don’t know where I came up with that–maybe from my own longing to hear good poetry read in a beautiful masculine voice. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell will set aside all those brilliant essays someday and oblige me…?