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The history of poetry isn't all roses and romance

Experts from Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies shed some light on the often-violent roots of verse

A fountain pen sits on a blank sheet of paper next to an inkwell and a rose
February 13, 2018

Valentine’s Day can bring visions of roses and flowery language — or at least the Hallmark-card version. But poetry did not always serve the romantically minded.

Robert Bjork, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University, says poetry wasn’t necessarily written for the sole purpose of courtship. In fact, works from as early as the fifth century contradict our modern-day popular notions of love and courtship.

Surviving poems in Old English such as “Wulf and Eadwacer” often intertwined love with themes of violence and strife.

“It’s about a man and a woman, who are violently separated,” said Bjork, who is the director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, a statewide research center representing Arizona's three public universities. “There are themes of love and yearning, but there are also themes of peril.”

Poetry’s broader themes, including those centered around violence, persisted until around the 19th century, when the idea of romantic verse emerged, reflective of the Romanticism of the time — a period with an emphasis on imagination and emotions.

“You started to have an actual love interest expressed in the literature,” Bjork said.

Susan Dudash, assistant director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, agreed.

“The authors during this period of Romanticism started to look back at these older, medieval topics of damsels in distress — I think this was the turning point toward the modern interpretation of romantic poetry,” she said.

And it wasn’t just men who were engaged in the writing of poetry throughout the ages.

“Many of the voices behind the poetry from the fifth century and onward were women,” Bjork said.

Women in the 14th century, like French/Italian writer Christine de Pizan, emerged as successful authors — something quite uncommon not only because many women couldn’t read or write at that time period, Dudash said, but also because “she was also the first professional author, in the sense that she made a living by having her love-themed poetry work commissioned, garnering her a cult following.”

Learn more about the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, including upcoming lectures and the center’s popular biennial Chaucer Celebration, at