Love is appearing more often in books now than 50 years ago. But not as frequently as in Shakespeare’s time or that of his successors. The writers who followed Shakespeare — John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Robert Herrick, Sir John Suckling — were the ones who wrote most frequently about love.
The Romantics and the Victorians were no slouches either. They wrote copiously about love. Then came the drop. The word appeared less often in books published in the first half of the 20th century but has been growing in use since the 1970s. After the Summer of Love.
See the graphs showing how often the words, love and romance, appear in books published over the centuries. These graphs are from the Google Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequency of any word or short sentence found in print.
One reason the word “love” appears less often in print now than in the 19th century may be the growing variety of books. Books on science, medicine, health care, technology, business and industry have proliferated — not the kind where you can read a lot about love.
What is interesting is the trend in fiction. Love has appeared less frequently in works of fiction, too, after the end of the 19th century. There was a sharp drop after the late 1920s. Then came a revival in the 1950s, which continues.
These graphs have their limitations. They don’t show how the words are used. Both love and romance have different meanings. In fact, romance originally meant a story of the adventures of a knight or a hero. That’s according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which says the word comes from the Old French romanz “verse narrative”. In literature, romance came to mean a love story by the 1660s, says the dictionary. Romance became another word for a love affair, it adds, from 1916.
Everyone has his or her favourite love poems. Easily the most quoted and anthologized include Shakespeare’s Sonnets 18 and 116 , Ben Jonson’s To Celia, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways, Robert Burns’s A Red, Red Rose, Byron’s She Walks in Beauty and We’ll Go No More A-Roving and Wordsworth’s She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways. But some of the greatest and most exquisite love poems were written by Shakespeare’s younger contemporaries like John Donne and the succeeding generation which included poets like Andrew Marvell.
Here’s a lyric by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Delight in Disorder
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.
If you look at the graphs, you will see the word “love” appeared most often in works written or published in the 1630s, just before the English Civil War (1642-1651), which brought Oliver Cromwell to power and led to the execution of King Charles I.