Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will join in discussion of these “crazy love” poems in Slate’s commenting community this week. Post your questions and comments, and he’ll respond and participate.
Love is often messy, difficult, contorted, disturbing, and out of control. That’s the proposition of dramas from Shakespeare to soap opera and a great theme of poetry and song. It will also be the topic of Slate’s anthology for Valentine’s Day this year: the difficulties, pains, jealousies, terrors, and inconveniences of love—in other words, the problems that effectively celebrate love’s power by demonstrating what we are willing to go through for love’s sake.
Denying such complication gives us the artistic and poetic mode of the pastoral, with its imagined realm where sheep-tending lovers dispel their problems by singing to one another. Philip Sidney (1554-86) managed to write a splendid poem on the potentially boring subject of perfect love—untroubled and uncomplicated—between those porcelain figures of pastoral convention, a shepherdess and a shepherd. Sidney’s couple enjoys the ever-pursued opposite of our theme:
“My True Love Hath My Heart and I Have His”My 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.
In contrast, William Shakespeare’s (1564 -1616) agitated “Sonnet 129” expresses love’s triumph over good sense by capping clots of adjectives with anticlimaxes: The tame phrases “full of blame and “not to trust” tagging along, as if out of breath, after wild adjectives that suggest savagery, blood, and murder. Sidney’s shepherdess celebrates a mutual bargain; Shakespeare here examines the other side of love’s transaction, beginning with the expense. (“Spirit” is said to have been a term for semen.)
“Sonnet 129”Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos’d; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Sexual love is not always decorous or respectable or orderly. But it certainly can be heavenly, as Shakespeare’s poem concedes in its final couplet. Sidney’s poem, with its imagining of perfection, and Shakespeare’s poem, with its elaboration of the opposite, both recognize the extreme power of Eros, and its destruction of the former property lines of the psyche: “He loves my heart, for once it was its own.”
The most ancient, central, and influential of Western love poems are those written to women by Sappho of Lesbos (who died circa 570 B.C.). Her poems survive in fragments and in her immense influence on all her successors, including the ancient Roman Catullus and the American modernist William Carlos Williams. Williams wrote a free translation, titled “Sappho,” of Sappho’s best-known poem.
In it, he describes the physical symptoms of envy and thwarted desire, providing a vivid antecedent of Shakespeare’s “Hell.” Not merely seeing the lost beloved but seeing her with someone else rouses the tumult in Sappho’s breast, the inability to speak, the sweat and paleness. The physiological detail suggests contemporary ideas of love and jealousy as neuro-chemical phenomena, born of evolutionary competition. The lucky interloper who has what I, perhaps, once had and still can’t help wanting: That person is a peer of the gods.
My favorite volume of Sappho in English is Jim Powell’s Sappho: A Garland (which also contains a helpful afterword on subjects like Sappho’s verse-measures and the fragmentary surviving texts of her poems). Here is Powell’s version of Sappho’s prayer to Aphrodite, a prayer in which the poet, with a smile, lets herself put words in the mouth of her imagined ally, the goddess:
Artfully adorned Aphrodite, deathless
child of Zeus and weaver of wiles I beg you
please don’t hurt me, don’t overcome my spirit,
………..goddess, with longing, but come here, if ever at other moments
hearing these my words from afar you listened
and responded: leaving your father’s house, all
………..golden, you came then, hitching up your chariot: lovely sparrows
drew you quickly over the dark earth, whirling
on fine beating wings from the heights of heaven
………..down through the sky and instantly arrived—and then O my blessed
goddess with a smile on your deathless face you
asked me what the matter was this time, what I
………..called you for this time, what I now most wanted to happen in my
raving heart: “Whom this time should I persuade to
lead you back again to her love? Who now, oh
………..Sappho, who wrongs you? If she flees you now, she will soon pursue you;
if she won’t accept what you give, she’ll give it;
if she doesn’t love you, she’ll love you soon now,
………..even unwilling.” Come to me again, and release me from this
want past bearing. All that my heart desires to
happen—make it happen. And stand beside me,
………..Goddess, my ally.
By having the goddess of love ask, with a smile on her deathless face, who it is this time, Sappho acknowledges the sequential and multiple nature of her attachments.
Multiple lovers appear as the central, troubling notion in a comic but poignant poem by George Gascoigne (1535-77). He begins his poem by quoting the woman he loves:
“And If I Did, What Then?””And if I did, what then?
Are you aggriev’d therefore?
The sea hath fish for every man,
And what would you have more?”Thus did my mistress once,
Amaze my mind with doubt;
And popp’d a question for the nonce
To beat my brains about.Whereto I thus replied:
“Each fisherman can wish
That all the seas at every tide
Were his alone to fish.”And so did I (in vain)
But since it may not be,
Let such fish there as find the gain,
And leave the loss for me.”And with such luck and loss
I will content myself,
Till tides of turning time may toss
Such fishers on the shelf.”And when they stick on sands,
That every man may see,
Then will I laugh and clap my hands,
As they do now at me.”
I like this poem partly because Gascoigne gives the first, good lines to the woman, generously portraying himself as befuddled. It’s true that he gives himself the last word, and the most words, yet there’s a winning quality to his unhappy but resigned acceptance of her (equal?) rights to have other lovers. It is worth noting that Gascoigne’s mistress doesn’t downright inform him that she has other lovers: She merely asks, if she did, what then? (Maybe implying that if she did, so what? Or what can he do about it?)
Ben Jonson’s (1572-1637) ear-charming poem “My Picture Left in Scotland” has appeared in these anthologies before. I’ll put it here again, because I love it and so that it can precede his poem “In the Person of Woman Kind” (one of two he wrote). First, the poem where the lady’s offhand treatment of his portrait makes him conclude that she is more interested in good looks than in good poetry:
“My Picture Left in Scotland” I now think, Love is rather deafe, than blind,
For else it could not be,
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
..And cast my love behind:
I’m sure my language to her, was as sweet,
……And every close did meet
……In sentence, of as subtle feet
……As hath the youngest He
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.Oh, but my conscious feares,
……That fly my thoughts betweene,
……Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs,
Told seven and fortie years,
..Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace
..My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopped her ears.
Deaf to the music of his poetry, the lady who neglects Jonson’s picture and undervalues his verses is portrayed, politely, as a bit of a fool. Writing from her point of view, perhaps even presuming to speak for all women, Jonson reverses the compliment, returning it to men as “dull, and envious fools.” The effect may be to acknowledge “inconstancy” as the norm for both sexes: Like good warriors, good lovers need practice and a variety of experience.
“In Defense of Their Inconstancy”….A SongHang up those dull and envious fools
…..That talk abroad of Woman’s change,
We were not bred to sit on stools,
…..Our proper virtue is to range:
………Take that away, you take our lives,
………We are no women then, but wives.
Such as in valor would excel
…..Doe change, though man, and often fight,
Which we in love must doe as well,
…..If ever we will love aright.
………The frequent varying of the deed,
………Is that which doth perfection breed. Nor is’t inconstancy to change
…..For what is better, or to make
(By searching) what before was strange,
…..Familiar, for the use’s sake;
The good, from bad, is not descried,
………But as ‘tis often vexed and tried. And this profession of a store
…..In love, doth not alone help forth
Our pleasure; but preserves us more
…..From being forsaken, then doth worth:
………For were the worthiest woman curst
………To love one man, he’d leave her first.
In other words, if a woman were so foolish as to be faithful to one man, he’d probably abandon her.
Aphra Behn (1640-89) also tries to write about the complications of love from the viewpoint of the opposite sex. Like television advertising of our own time, poetry has taken note of erectile dysfunction, and Behn’s more or less pornographic poem sees the problem from the man’s point of view as well as from the woman’s (unlike Lady Mary Wortley Montague, 1689-1762, who speculates as punishingly as she can about the alleged sexual difficulties of Jonathan Swift). Aphra Behn’s poem is long, so I will excerpt it here. (The full, hot text is available elsewhere.) Behn’s virginal Cloris is more than interested in the advances of Lysander, and their encounter proceeds in the usual sequence of porn, though at an unusually high level of eloquent, witty writing:
In a lone thicket made for love,
Silent as yielding maid’s consent,
She with a charming languishment,
Permits his force, yet gently strove;
Her hands his bosom softly meet,
But not to put him back designed,
Rather to draw ‘em on inclined:
Whilst he lay trembling at her feet,
Resistance ‘tis in vain to show:
She wants the power to say—Ah! what d’ye do?Her bright eyes sweet and yet severe,
Where love and shame confus’dly strive,
Fresh vigor to Lysander give;
And breathing faintly in his ear,
She cried—Cease, cease—your vain desire,
Or I’ll call out—what would you do?
My dearer honor ev’n to you
I cannot, must not give—Retire,
Or take this life, whose chiefest part
I gave you with the conquest of my heart.But he as much unused to fear,
As he was capable of love,
The blessed minutes to improve,
Kisses her mouth, her neck, her hair;
Each touch her new desire alarms;
His burning, trembling hand he pressed
Upon her swelling snowy breast,
While she lay panting in his arms.
All her unguarded beauties lie
The spoils and trophies of the enemy.And now without respect or fear
He seeks the object of his vows,
(His love no modesty allows)
By swift degrees advancing—where
His daring hand that altar seized,
Where gods of love do sacrifice:
That awful throne, that paradise
Where rage is calmed, and anger pleased;
That fountain where delight still flows,
And gives the universal world repose.Her balmy lips encount’ring his,
Their bodies, as their souls, are joined;
Where both in transports unconfined
Extend themselves upon the moss.
Cloris half dead and breathless lay;
Her soft eyes cast a humid light
Such as divides the day and night;
Or falling stars, whose fires decay:
And now no signs of life she shows,
But what in short-breathed sighs returns and goes.
Lysander at this point sees “her rising bosom bare” and “her loose thin robes, through which appear/ A shape designed for love and play.” But he is “o’er ravished” and “too transported” and is “Unable to perform the sacrifice.” As to the shepherdess:
Cloris returning from the trance
Which love and soft desire had bred,
Her timorous hand she gently laid
(Or guided by design or chance)
Upon that fabulous Priapus,
That potent god, as poets feign:
But never did young shepherdess,
Gath’ring of fern upon the plain,
More nimbly draw her fingers back,
Finding beneath the verdant leaves a snake: Than Cloris her fair hand withdrew,
Finding that god of her desires
Disarmed of all his awful fires,
And cold as flow’rs bathed in the morning dew.
Who can the nymph’s confusion guess?
The blood forsook the hinder place,
And strewed with blushes all her face,
Which both disdain and shame expressed:
And from Lysander’s arms she fled,
Leaving him fainting on the gloomy bed.
Then, “Like lightning through the grove she hies,” running through “The wind that wantoned in her hair/ And with her ruffled garments played.” The unravished nymph Cloris runs away, and the poet Aphra Behn, having demonstrated her impressive skill at erotic writing—presumably, Behn was amused to arouse her male readers—seems to acknowledge and ponder gender difference in her last stanza:
The nymph’s resentments none but I
Can well imagine or condole:
But none can guess Lysander’s soul
But those who swayed his destiny.
His silent griefs swell up to storms,
And not one god his fury spares;
He cursed his birth, his fate, his stars;
But more the shepherdess’s charms,
Whose soft bewitching influence
Had damned him to the hell of impotence.
With this conclusion, as in her title, “The Disappointment,” Behn suggests far different feelings in her Cloris than those of Sidney’s shepherdess, who says, “There never was a better bargain driven.”
But the scene Behn chooses for her soft-porn narrative is pastoral. She plays out her worldly, cynical story as though on a stage just vacated by Sidney’s “My True Love Has My Heart and I Have His.” She is explicitly both using and mocking the pastoral conventions, with a sophisticated smirk.
In a quite different way, William Blake (1757-1827) also creates pastoral delight as love’s realm in order to undermine it:
How sweet I roam’d from field to field,
……And tasted all the summer’s pride
’Til the prince of love beheld
……Who in the sunny beams did glide!He show’d me lilies for my hair
……And blushing roses for my brow;
He led me through his garden fair,
……Where all his golden pleasures grow.With sweet May dews my wings were wet,
……And Phoebus fired my vocal rage
He caught me in his silken net,
……And shut me in his golden cage.……He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
……Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.
The “loss of liberty” Blake engagingly evokes—in fact, all the traditional love-language of enslavement—was mocked by John Suckling (1606-42):
Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
……Prithee, why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her,
……Looking ill prevail?
……Prithee, why so pale?Why so dull and mute, young sinner?
……Prithee, why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can’t win her,
……Saying nothing do’t?
……Prithee, why so mute?Quit, quit, for shame; this will not move,
……This cannot take her.
If of herself she will not love,
……Nothing can make her:
……The Devil take her!
The pronoun “her” is a reminder that the distresses of love, like its exaltations, are not limited to heterosexual lovers. Long before political “Defense of Marriage” and long before academic “Queer Studies,” love and love poetry have crossed gender boundaries—or else reimagined them. “Lovers” in Shakespeare’s time could mean friends or admirers in a nonsexual way; but the word could also mean sexual partners. And “prick” seemed to mean exactly what 21st-century Americans understand the term to mean. Here is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 20”: *
A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
…But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
…Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.
Assembling these poems with Philip Sidney’s and Aphra Behn’s at opposite extremes in a way, yet identical in some aspects of setting, expectation, and convention, leads me to think about the notion of sexual love as profoundly transformative. The idea may not be shared by all cultures. The friezes of peacefully happy, intricately coupling divinities on Hindu temples, for instance, suggests an entirely different conception of lovemaking, in several senses of the word.
Here, as the final element of this little anthology, is a poem from William Butler Yeats’ sequence “A Woman Young and Old.” Yeats’ final image, the strange bird that “shrieks at us,” is not exactly comforting, far from the tone of Sidney’s happy shepherdess. But the bird is “miraculous” and associated with freedom. Whereas Blake calls love “a golden cage,” in Yeats’ poem it is love that breaks the shackles of triviality, the limitations of mockery, the emptiness of settled games. Love, in this poem, is not exactly heaven or hell. It is, as Yeats says, astonishing.
“Her Triumph”I 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.
Correction, Feb. 11, 2010: This article originally misidentified Shakespeare’s 20th sonnet as his 11th. (Return to the corrected sentence.)