Is romantic love universal, or is it an elegant pursuit invented by flirtatious lords and ladies, or their poets and troubadours, in the medieval courts of southern Europe?—as suggested by the very words “courtship” and “romantic.” (Narratives or “romances” were written in the post-Roman, non-Latin languages of the region.)
The monk Andreas Capellanus wrote “The Art of Courtly Love” sometime around the year 1180, including rules that sound familiar:
Rule 1: Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
Rule 2: He who is not jealous cannot love.
Certainly modern life, with its emphasis on erotic needs and desires, tends to support Rule 9: “No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.” The traditions of St. Valentine’s Day—cards, poems, flowers, candy, music—conform with what may be Capellanus’ most interesting principle, Rule 10: “No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.”
Love is linked to art and persuasion, and also to the ideal or affectation of innocence. Poetry has roots in courtly flirtation, seduction, and complaint—that is, in courtship. For example, the brilliant, learned, and sophisticated aristocrat Sir Phillip Sidney wrote, affectingly, as though in the voice of a shepherd girl:
MY TRUE LOVE HATH MY HEART AND I HAVE HISMy true love hath my heart and I have his,
By just exchange one for another given;
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven.
My true love has my heart and I have his.His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides;
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his, because in me it bides.
My true love hath my heart and I have his.
Sidney’s writing here, with its play between apparent plainness and witty elaboration, resembles graceful flirtation. He weaves the serious game of love and the serious game of poetry into one pleasure.
In another of my favorite love poems, William Butler Yeats uses the word “game,” but in order to reach beyond it:
HER TRIUMPHI did the dragon’s will until you came
Because I had fancied love a casual
Improvisation, or a settled game
That followed if I let the kerchief fall:
Those deeds were best that gave the minute wings
And heavenly music if they gave it wit;
And then you stood among the dragon rings.
I mocked, being crazy, but you mastered it
And broke the chain and set my ankles free,
Saint George or else a pagan Perseus;
And now we stare astonished at the sea,
And a miraculous strange bird shrieks at us.
The dragon, the “settled game,” the chained ankles, the almost casual conflation of Christian saint and classical hero, the startling bird that “shrieks” at the end: All these evoke the power of love’s strangeness, rather than its sweetness. No flowers or chocolates here, and even the phrase “heavenly music” is associated with the shallow games that preceded the serious, unsettling passion.
Overwhelming, unqualified, and ungovernable passion characterizes the love poetry of Emily Dickinson:
Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!Futile—the Winds—
To a Heart in Port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
Her dismissal of chart and compass is a little like Yeats’ dismissal of the “settled game.” The terms are so high and absolute that a reader can choose to read the “Wild Nights” as religious ecstasy—however little “our luxury” sounds like a theological state. In a more worldly direction—not Eden or the Sea, but a Door and the Mat—Dickinson can seal an absolute love by transforming the unpromising word “society”:
The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the Door;
On her divine Majority
Obtrude no more.Unmoved, she notes the Chariots pausing
At her low Gate;
Unmoved, an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat.I’ve known her from an ample nation
Then close the valves of her attention
To receive Sidney’s poem as a love-gift would be overwhelmingly sweet; and Yeats’ would make a profoundly moving, if somewhat disturbing, Valentine’s present. For the person addressed by these densely concentrated works by Dickinson, the poems would be immensely strong potions of celebration—something far beyond flattery, more like an induction into the depths of the heart.
Another tradition of love poetry celebrates the beloved with a kind of inverse compliment. Shakespeare says his mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun, and that black wires grow on her head; Shakespeare’s contemporary Michael Drayton begins a sonnet, “Three sorts of serpent do resemble thee.” That sort of compliment-by-complaint was already a conventional move when Shakespeare and Drayton were writing. It compliments the loved one by crediting her with a sense of humor, an appreciation of irony, and the ability to see through trite praises.
Something of that courtly reverse praise caps a contemporary poem I like, by the late Alan Dugan:
LOVE SONG: I AND THOUNothing is plumb, level or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh, I spat rage’s nails
into the frame-up of my work:
it held. It settled plumb,
level, solid, square and true
for that great moment. Then
it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it, I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.
Louise Glück pays a similar tribute to reader and loved one by defying the trite and expected. No box of chocolates, and the flower is used to represent love’s frustrations and false promises, the difficulty of lovers becoming one person, the difficulty of remaining two:
MOCK ORANGEIt is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
paralyzing body—and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union—In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?
This anthology could go on forever. I’ll represent a few more aspects of the subject: the physiology of jealousy; the longing for past love; and—this is Valentine’s Day, after all—a moment of sweet communication in love and a notion of perfect love.
Here is William Carlos Williams’ free translation of a poem by Sappho, one that was also adapted by Catullus:
That man is a peer of the gods, who
face to face sits listening at her side, who
to your sweet speech and lovely laughter.It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast. At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
is broken.Straightways, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears
thunder.Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down. I grow
paler than grass and lack little
For me, the multiple distances I feel—as I read this American translation of a poem that was already old and inherited for Catullus when he wrote—emphasize the immediacy of the physical symptoms, the intimacy of conviction.
For loss, it’s hard to imagine a more penetrating yet gravely balanced poem than the sonnet John Milton wrote about the wife he married after he was already blind—a fact that gives additional meaning to the poem’s first three words and its final two words:
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.
For the sweetness (flavored with mortality, it is true), here is Williams again:
THE ACTThere were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded.
They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful
where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said,
and cut them and gave them to me
in my hand.
And finally, here is a poem by Wallace Stevens, imagining a contentment so pure it is almost hard to recognize as a love poem:
FINAL SOLILOQUY OF THE INTERIOR PARAMOURLight the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one …
How high that highest candle lights the dark.Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.