You Say You Love by John Keats cover image

You Say You Love by John Keats: The Interesting Meaning Behind the Poem

John Keats’ poems have always had a powerful emotion as the driving force. The lyrical lines that he uses contain more than just rhyming words and meter. He infuses a lot of feelings in them, most of which he felt during his experiences. You Say You Love is one such poem that describes a complex mix of emotions.

You Say You Love is a poem about the absence of a reciprocal feeling of love. This poem describes beautifully the pain someone goes through when the person they love does not reciprocate the same feelings.

It is said that John Keats wrote this poem for Isabella Jones, a woman he met and soon became friends with. From what we can infer from this poem is that he was attracted to this woman but perhaps the woman was not as expressive as Keats was (how can she, Keats was a poet. Being expressive was his job).

But there’s more to the poem than what meets the eyes. There are some latent emotions somewhere. What are these emotions? Let’s find out, but before, take a look at the poem.

You Say You Love by John Keats

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!

II.

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! 

III.

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! 

IV.

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! 

V.

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!
- John Keats

Summary and Meaning

The seemingly simple yet intricately written five-stanza poem expresses so much of emotions. While there are many emotions at play here, pain, anger, love and a distasteful mix of all these are the major ones. Keats creates a contrasting image of two feelings; the love he has for this woman, and the love she has for him.

Where Keats’ love is warm and embracing, almost touching the fires of intimacy and sex, the woman’s love is cold, lifeless, and chaste. The poet says that while he tries so much to love her, caress her, and kiss her, all he gets in return is denial. But what kind of denial is it?

There are two lines worth noting; “You say you love me” and “O love me truly” and these two lines describe the entire meaning of the poem. It is not some worthless pursuit that the poet is on, trying to make this woman fall in love with him even though she is uninterested.

The woman is in love with him or makes him believe that. Keats mentions that “you say you love me” but it just does not feel like love, but a pretense. Then each stanza describes in detail why he feels like her love is fake. The end of each stanza is truly heartbreaking, showing the desperate and sad state the poet is in. He pleads with this woman to love him, but love him truly.

The entire poem is just him describing why this woman’s love feels fake to him, and how he loves her and wants her to love him the same way. Let’s look at the analysis to understand the poem easily.

Analysis of the Poem

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!

The first stanza tells us that when this woman says she loves him, it is hardly even audible. This does not mean that she speaks at a very low volume. This is a metaphor that means that while she tells him that she loves him, the poet can never feel it. It’s just saying, never showing.

Imagine a num saying prayers softly to herself while the chime bell rings. All you would see is just her lips moving, but won’t be able to hear what she is saying. This is what Keats uses as a metaphor for her expression of love.

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!

We get a comparison of the woman’s love for the cold sunrise in September. While the poet’s love is warm, the woman’s love just looks warm, but it isn’t. He can see the glow of the sunrise, but never feel the warmth of it.

It is as if she is the nun of Saint Cupid, keeping his embers for weeks. All the warmth that once was is not anymore.

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!

Her lips say that she loves him, but they just say it, never show it. It is as if her lips are tinted with corals, inspiring no happiness in the heart of Keats. Just as the corals in the sea are hard and stiff, unable to move, her lips never move or pout to kiss Keats.

Keats wants her to show the love, to kiss him, to take it to the passionate side, but the woman doesn’t. All he gets is just hollow words. He ends this stanza, just like the others, with a plea to love him truly.

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, Keats puts a contrast between his love and the love of this woman. He says that he squeezes her hands, but in return does not get anything back. Squeezing the hands of your lover is establishing a connection with the person. It is about showing love, affection, and trust.

Keats says that this woman’s hands are just cold and like a statue. Where his hands are burning with passion, this woman is completely cold, uninterested, and unbothered.

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 final stanza is just Keats asking her what he wants her to do. He wants to talk to her with the same passion as he does. He says that she should smile at him, without thinking that her passionate words would burn him.

He asks her to squeeze his hands as lovers do, he asks her to kiss him and bury him in her heart. All he wants from her is to love him truly.

The theme of the Poem

The poem is mainly about unrequited love, the pain that comes from loving someone who doesn’t love you back. But there’s more. It is when the other person says they love you, but it never feels like such. It is about being in love, and yet starving for it every day.

Literary Devices of the Poem

Metaphors: There are a lot of metaphors used in the poem. Every stanza is a metaphor to show the lack of love in his lover’s heart. Here are some of the examples:

Voice chaster than a nun’s who singeth the soft vespers to herself while the chime-bell ringeth

Smile cold as sunrise in September

Your lips, coral tinted teach no blisses

No soft squeeze for squeeze returneth, it is like a statue’s dead

Alliteration: Here are the examples of alliteration used in the poem:

You say you love; but with a voice

Cold as sunrise in September,

Coral tinted teach no blisses.

No soft squeeze for squeeze returneth,

Smile, as if those words should burn be,

Squeeze as lovers should – O kiss

And in thy heart inurn me!

Repetition: The repetition of the line “O love me truly” is used to emphasize the importance of this line. This is the central pillar of the entire poem.

Rhyme scheme: The rhyming scheme of You Say You Love is ABCBD

Simile: The line “but with a smile cold as sunrise in September” is an example of a simile.

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