An Old Romantic Custom We Should Bring Back

The best gift you can give your Valentine is reading a poem out loud.

Illustration of two people reading a book together in bed
Jan Buchczik
A smiley face

How to Build a Lifeis a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

No holiday exposes the problems with gift-giving quite like Valentine’s Day. On birthdays or Christmas, you might at least find some variety. But on February 14, almost everything on offer is painfully conventional and threatens to degrade the quality of your love. To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning,

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee as much as $59.99 in flowers purchased on the internet.
And such as to stop at the CVS for chocolates on my way from work.
(Tomorrow my love for thee will be half off, so I might grab more then.)

If that poem leaves you cold (like you worry those gifts will leave your Valentine), real poetry might just do the trick. Poetry, after all, is practically synonymous with romance, having narrated the experience of love throughout the ages. For a truly personal touch—something you won’t find on any shelf—reading poetry to your beloved can turn a tired holiday into a bespoke performance of your affection.

Reading to others is a rare practice today. Right now, I am probably a voice inside your head, because most reading these days—of books, magazines, news, email, and social-media posts—happens silently. Occasionally you might read something to another person, but unless you’re a teacher or a parent of young kids, you probably haven’t regularly, purposefully read in front of others since college, or even grade school.

Private reading is a fairly modern custom. In ancient times, when literacy was rare, reading was generally done aloud, for others. Saint Augustine saw his teacher Ambrose’s habit of reading silently to himself as a kind of eccentricity, noting, “His eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest.” He speculated that Ambrose must have been doing so to preserve his voice. Now you are more likely to see a couple silently reading two copies of the same newspaper across the breakfast table from each other than one reading to the other. As such, the written word has been stripped of its bonding potential.

There is a certain intimate magic to being read to by someone you love, and scholars are starting to understand why. They find, for example, that reading to children can have a powerful positive effect on bonding. Levels of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” because of the strong feelings it seems to engender between family members and friends, have been found to rise in children when they are told stories. Oxytocin is especially powerful at bonding lovers together. Although no research I have found addresses the question directly, it is logical to assume that reading to your beloved may raise oxytocin levels, thus deepening the romantic bond.

That reading is best done at night, as sleep approaches. Scholars have found that hearing ideas right before sleeping results in better recall than if they are heard during the day—so if you want your sweetheart to remember that your love is “like a red, red rose,” the later you tell them that, the better. Further, even when sleeping, people can establish associations. For example, researchers in Israel played a tone to sleepers while releasing a particular smell, and found that the participants still expected the smell when the tone sounded during their waking hours. Depending on what you read, you might plausibly establish a strong association between the feeling of love and the music of your voice.

To enhance the effect maximally, try two more things. First, read poetry, which elicits peak emotional experiences in unique ways. As researchers reported in 2017 in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, poetry can stimulate your brain’s nucleus accumbens, which is associated with getting the chills—which you tend to get with sudden pleasurable emotions.

Second, hold your partner’s hand while you read. As scholars at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah showed in 2008, hand-holding can calm several stress-sensitive systems in the body. Other research suggests that under certain conditions, hand-holding may induce brain-to-brain coupling, a phenomenon in which people match each other’s neural activity while talking to and understanding each other. “Two hearts beating as one” is a common metaphor for romantic love, but it might be more literal—if somewhat less poetic—to say “two temporal lobes processing parallel oscillations at a frequency of three to eight hertz.” This neural matching creates the intimate feeling of being in sync with another person—the feeling that helped you fall in love in the first place.

Put together all the science, and you’ll arrive at the perfect Valentine’s Day gift: Read your partner poetry of love while holding their hand, until they fall asleep. It requires no money, no trips to the store, no reservations. You don’t even have to be creative and write your own love poems; just rely on the greats.

The perfect Valentine’s Day poem depends on the characteristics of your relationship. Let’s say, for example, that your love is an inscrutable mystery, almost beyond the ability of words to describe. An ideal verse might come from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

If your love is more of the divine type, holy and pure, look to the Bible. You could try the Song of Songs:

Behold, you are beautiful, my love.
Behold, you are beautiful.
Your eyes are doves.

If your love is almost unbearably intense, I recommend the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote “When I Too Long Have Looked Upon Your Face”:

I turn away reluctant from your light,
And stand irresolute, a mind undone,
A silly, dazzled thing deprived of sight
From having looked too long upon the sun.

And what if the object of your affection is a hot mess? (This suggestion comes from my wife; no doubt she’s asking for a friend.) I might commend here the libretto of Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress, where the heroine, sweet Anne Trulove, sings a nighttime lullaby to her adored—but “insane”—Tom Rakewell:

Gently, little boat
across the ocean float
the crystal waves dividing.
The sun in the west
is going to rest.
Glide toward the islands of the blessed.

Perhaps your beloved will respond as does the background chorus of madmen in Tom’s head:

What voice is this?
What heavenly strains
bring solace to tormented brains?

If your Valentine is touched by your gesture of romance, don’t stop at February 14. Make it a Tuesday tradition, or even a de facto nighttime routine, after brushing your teeth and before turning out the light. You can offer your love no better gift than making true each night the words of Sara Teasdale:

Oh plunge me deep in love—put out
My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
Swept by the tempest of your love,
A taper in a rushing wind.