J John Keats

You say you love; but with a voice by John Keats

‘You say you love; but with a voice’ also known by the refrain, “O love me truly!” deals with a speaker’s physical passion for his beloved. It is believed to be John Keats’ earliest love poem.

John Keats wrote several poems such as ‘You say you love; but with a voice dedicated to his former friend and lover Isabella Jones with whom he was in a relationship before May 1817. In this lyric, he glorifies the lady’s physical aspects for conveying his passion. This poem revolves around the theme of physical love and passion. Besides, it also contains conventional symbols and imagery that were used by well-known poets. Keats uses such devices to portray a person whose presence makes his senses restless and his heart burning with love.

You say you love; but with a voice by John Keats

 

Summary

‘You say you love; but with a voice’ by John Keats is a love poem that describes a lady’s different physical aspects that incite uncontrollable passion in a lover’s heart.

In this poem, the poetic persona talks about some physical attributes of a lady whom he loves. He refers to his beloved’s soft voice, cold smile, coal-tinted lips, dispassionate hands, and fiery words. Each of them incites great passion in the lover’s heart. No matter how she reacts to the lover’s sensation, he loves her truly. Besides, he wants to consummate himself with the lady’s love. That’s all the poetic voice wants to convey through this romantic lyric.

 

Structure

This poem is divided into five parts. Each of the stanzas contains five lines and they rhyme in a set pattern. To be specific, the rhyme scheme of this poem is ABCBD. It goes on throughout the poem.

This poem has a song-like quality as there is a refrain, “O love me truly!” at the end of each section. This refrain does not confirm the rhyming pattern but it’s an integral part of this poem. As it tells of a lover’s heartfelt emotions.

While metrically analyzing this piece, readers can find the syllable count 8-8-7-7-5 in each stanza. The metrical scheme depends mostly on the iambic meter. The overall poem is composed of iambic tetrameter, iambic trimeter, and iambic dimeter (only the refrain is in this meter) alternatively.

 

Literary Devices

This passionate address to one’s beloved contains a variety of literary devices. Firstly, a repetition of the word “you” is found in the first line. It is used for the sake of emphasis. There is hyperbole in the following line. The last line of each stanza is a refrain as well as a rhetorical exclamation.

In the second stanza, readers can find a simile in the line, “Cold as sunrise in September.” There is an allusion to Saint Cupid here. Whereas in the phrase, “weeks of Ember” Keats uses a metaphor.

An antithesis can be found in these lines, “It is like a statue’s dead – / While mine to passion burneth.” These lines also contain irony. The last stanza contains a climax of emotions. Here, readers can also find a circumlocution in the line, “Ane in thy heart inurn me!”

 

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

You say you love; but with a voice

Chaster than a nun’s, who singeth

The soft Vespers to herself

While the chime-bell ringeth –

O love me truly!

Keats’ poem, ‘You say you love; but with a voice’ talks about different physical attributes of a lady whom the speaker loves. In each stanza, he explores how each of her bodily attributes enthralls his heart. Likewise, in the first stanza, there is a reference to the lady’s voice.

 

Lines 1–2

You say you love; but with a voice

Chaster than a nun’s, who singeth

According to the speaker, her voice sounds soft and embalming to his ears as if she has the power to pacify one’s spirit. The poetic persona, the voice of Keats himself, teases the lady by saying the lady loves him but implicitly. She never expresses her emotions explicitly. The coyness of the lady is what makes the speaker’s heart restless.

When she utters a word or two, it sounds as if a voice chaster than a nun uttering sermons to a religious gathering. It is a reference to her truthfulness as well as her virginity. Besides, her chastity is not a physical one but a divine one. The speaker wants to break through this spiritual chastity of singularity.

 

Lines 3–5

The soft Vespers to herself

While the chime-bell ringeth –

O love me truly!

In the following lines, Keats creates a devotional mood in the poem by presenting the imagery of a church. The onomatopoetic usage of words, “Vespers” and “chime-bell” creates this religious ambiance. According to the speaker, she sings the vespers or evening prayer to herself. Why is it said so? This lady’s spirit is unlike that of a normal human being. Her mortal voice sings to that goddess residing in herself.

For this reason, when the chime-bell rings in the evening, she devotedly prays to her soul. In this way, Keats glorifies the lady. He invests a spiritual entity inside her. Like a deeply religious being, he implores her to love him truly as if a Christian is praying to God to bestow divine love to him.

 

Stanza Two

You say you love; but with a smile

Cold as sunrise in September,

As you were Saint Cupid’s nun,

And kept his weeks of Ember.

O love me truly!

In the second stanza, the focus is on the lady’s smile. Firstly, readers have to take note of the words describing her smile for understanding the poet’s intention.

 

Lines 1–3

You say you love; but with a smile

Cold as sunrise in September,

As you were Saint Cupid’s nun,

In the lines quoted above, the epithet “cold” depicts how she smiles. She does not express her emotions openly. Nor does she showcase her true feelings. For this reason, Keats says her smile is “Cold as sunrise in September.”

There is another layer in this simile. The reference to September sunrise again depicts a pacifying image of the lady. She is indeed inexpressive. But, her inexpressive smile has an embalming quality. It soothes the soul of the lover.

The poet adds another simile in the following line to clarify the smile. According to the speaker, her cold smile makes him think as if she is “Saint Cupid’s nun.” To understand this allusion to Saint Cupid a reader has to know about who he is. In classical mythology, Cupid is the god of desire, erotic love, attraction, and affection. It seems to the speaker the lady worships Saint Cupid. For this reason, her smile arouses passion in his heart.

 

Lines 4–5

And kept his weeks of Ember.

O love me truly!

Moreover, while looking at her smile, it seems as if she is keeping “his weeks of Ember.” What does this mean? First of all, Ember is a small piece of burning or glowing coal or wood in a dying fire. In Renaissance poetry and art, sleeping Cupid became a symbol of absent or languishing love. It seems Keats is referring to this symbol for portraying the lady’s coyness and self-constraint. The speaker implores her to break such constraints and love him truly.

 

Stanza Three

You say you love – but then your lips

Coral tinted teach no blisses.

More than coral in the sea –

They never pout for kisses –

O love me truly!

The third stanza of ‘You say you love; but with a voice’ depicts the lips of the lady. The beginning of this section is a bit different from the last two stanzas. Where’s the difference? The word “with” is transplanted by “then”. This word depicts the growing passion in the lover’s heart. It is just a little alteration but the line sounds differently. That’s the magic of poetry, in it each word matters!

 

Lines 1–3

You say you love – but then your lips

Coral tinted teach no blisses.

More than coral in the sea –

In these lines, it seems as if the speaker is becoming restless at the point when he thinks of her lips. Why not? Lips contain the keys to one’s heart. A soft squeeze can do wonders! Those who are fortunate to kiss in this way can understand the poet’s emotions more appropriately.

In the next line, readers can find a stock symbol for portraying the lips of a loved one. In Renaissance poetry, mostly in the sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and others, readers have come across this imagery. There is no need to mention ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ by William Shakespeare. But Shakespeare refers to coral-tinted lips from a different perspective.

Whatsoever according to Keats, her lips are coral tinted. Like Shakespeare, he says those lips don’t have any blissful looks. In contrast, they don’t belong to a common lady. For this reason, those are redder than the corals in the sea. Readers can sense how the poet is growing hyperbolic.

 

Lines 4–5

They never pout for kisses –

O love me truly!

Moving to the next line, there’s another thing to take note of. Her lips never pout for kisses. Let’s see what the poet tries to bring home. First of all, the lady has exceptionally red lips that break the defense of the speaker’s self-control. He somehow wants to kiss the lady.

But, when it comes to the lady’s case, she is shy of kissing him. She never pouts for kisses like others do. No matter what, the lover somehow wants to kiss him. Before that, he implores her to love him truly. Then he can make her realize how much he loves her by kissing her as passionately he can.

 

Stanza Four

You say you love; but then your hand

No soft squeeze for squeeze returneth,

It is like a statue’s dead –

While mine to passion burneth –

O love me truly!

In this stanza, all about facial expressions have come to an end. Now, the lyrical voice focuses on his beloved’s hands. It is not that those don’t arouse feelings in his heart. Albeit they do! But alas! they don’t respond to his passionate physical vibes.

 

Lines 1–3

You say you love; but then your hand

No soft squeeze for squeeze returneth,

It is like a statue’s dead –

The speaker, in this section, is extremely sad. His love does not touch like the way he wants or he does. When he squeezes her hands, she never responds to her physical call. It makes him sad as well as dejected. He knows she loves him, but her attitude does not reflect it.

In the next two lines, Keats creates a contrast. Firstly, the speaker says her hands feel like that of a statue. When she lays her hands on his, it feels like he is touching the hands of a dead statue. This imagery depicts the inexpressive hands of the lady. It also expresses her coyness and passivity.

 

Lines 4–5

While mine to passion burneth –

O love me truly!

While in the following line, he says his hands are full of life. The passion in his heart of the lady even burns them. Whenever he touches her hands, the excitement keeps bubbling in his heart. But, after getting a cold response, it seems as if he is holding the hands of a lifeless statue. For this reason, he implores her to love him and express her emotions truthfully.

 

Stanza Five

O breathe a word or two of fire!

Smile, as if those words should burn be,

Squeeze as lovers should – O kiss

And in thy heart inurn me!

O love me truly!

The last stanza of this poem, ‘You say you love; but with a voice’ is quite different in comparison to the previous stanzas. In this section, the speaker does not talk about the lady’s passivity and coldness. Rather he tells her not to be shy anymore. She should seize the moment and love him with all her heart.

Thus the theme of carpe diem comes into play. It sits at the driving seat and revolves around physicality. On top of that, through close reading and analyzing each word of this section, readers can say here the poet talks about spiritual consummation rather than eroticism.

Familiarity with the poems of Andrew Marvell (the carpe diem theme can be found in many of Andrew Marvell’s poetry) such as ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and ‘Young Love’ will help the readers to understand this section thoroughly. Whatsoever, here the speaker like other carpe diem poems is incensed. A reader can say he is in a state of extreme passion. He somehow needs the lady to be in love with him to end his restlessness as well as longing.

 

Lines 1–3

O breathe a word or two of fire!

Smile, as if those words should burn be,

Squeeze as lovers should – O kiss

Let’s have a close look at each line of this section. Firstly, Keats refers to the voice of the lady, as he has done in the first stanza. According to him, the lady’s voice that remained cold like the sound of vespers must be sparkled by the passion of love. Then her breath can convey her true feelings for him. Like the speaker, she has to be restless and excited.

The smile embalming as the September sun has to be as scorching as the summer sun. It has to burn her words. The metaphor used here is exceptional. It presents how passionate the lover has become.

Moreover, the speaker asks the lady to squeeze his hands like the way he did. Previously, her hands failed to respond to his physical call. But, now after understanding his state of mind, she must hold hands passionately. Like the lovers intimately squeezing their hands, she has to act accordingly. The implicit innuendos present here somehow deviates the readers from the real topic. But the following line is going to make everything clear.

 

Line 4–5

And in thy heart inurn me!

O love me truly!

By this line, “And in thy heart inurn me!” it seems Keats possibly hinting at the sexual desire of his heart. But, after mindfully understanding the meaning of the verb “inurn”, one can understand what he intends. Inurn means to place or bury something, especially ashes after cremation in an urn. But here the poet is referring to something else.

He tells the lady to give resort to his soul in hers. Thus it can eventuate the spiritual consummation the speaker badly wants to happen. Through physical proximity and truthful emotions, they can be one and make themselves complete. To make it happen, the beloved has to shed off her coyness and love the speaker with all her heart, truly and passionately.

 

Historical Context

The title, ‘You say you love; but with a voice’ is the first line of this poem. It is also known by the refrain used at the end of each stanza, “O love me truly!” John Keats possibly wrote this poem in 1817 or 1818 and it’s one of the earliest love poetry of Keats.

Keats developed a relationship with Isabella Jones in his early days. Throughout their friendship, he never hesitated to own his sexual attraction to her. However, they seem to enjoy each other’s proximity rather than committing to a romantic relationship. In his letters to his brother George Keats says that he “warmed with her” and “kissed her”. Therefore they possibly had intimacy.

Moreover, Keats wrote some poems such as ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ and ‘The Eve of St Mark’ dedicated to his beloved Isabella. The first version of ‘Bright Star’ may have been for her. Later he revised this piece for Frances (Fanny) Brawne.

Therefore, from the life of Keats it can be said that this poem, ‘You say you love; but with a voice’ is also about Isabella. Through it, he talks about her physical as well as spiritual desire for her.

 

Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that similarly deals with the themes present in John Keats’ lyric ‘You say you love; but with a voice’.

You can also read about the best love poetry to her and John Keats’ best-loved poems.

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About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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