‘Love-language has been pulled differently in different eras between the great generalising symbols – the heart, the rose, the fixed star.’ Photograph: Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images
At matins on 6 April 1327, in the church of St Clare in Avignon, Francesco Petrarch may or may not have seen Laura for the first time: her skin “whiter and colder than snow, not touched by the sun for many years”, golden hair, black eyes. We don’t know for sure whether Laura really existed. Some of Petrarch’s contemporaries thought she was just a symbol and a pretext, though on the flyleaf of his Virgil he noted not only the date of his original glimpse of her but also that 20 years later he had news of her death in the plague – and a passing remark implies she was married and might have been worn out over the years with childbearing. From that moment of encounter in Avignon anyway – whether mythic or actual – flowed the inspiration for the Rime Sparse, written over the next quarter of a century: poems dwelling on Petrarch’s helpless love for Laura, his dreaming and desires, his excited and jaded senses, his dismay at his own ageing and his grief over Laura’s death – and on the work of poetry, forging its tribute to her.
In the poems there’s no mention of Laura’s husband or children. Nothing actually happens between the lover and his beloved. The meetings he describes only take place in fantasy, in the writing itself; fulfilment is held off all the way up to the end of the 366th and last poem, where the idea of a virgin Laura mingles with praise for the Virgin Mary.
Petrarch draws on the traditions of the troubadours and Dante’s Vita Nuova, but his representation of his convoluted, darkened inner state is distinctively original, and tremendous. Somehow his idealising language manages to also be gritty and surprising, rich with contradictions. “When I remember the time and place where I lost myself, and / the dear knot with which Love with his own hand bound me (he / so made bitterness seem sweet and weeping pleasure), / I am all sulphur and tinder, and my heart is afire . . .” Even readers who need the literal translation can feel something of the poetry’s loveliness in Italian, how the vowel-music opens its airy spaces round the lament, makes elegant the complexity of allusion.
Quando mi vene inanzi il tempo e ‘l loco
ov’ i’ perdei me stesso, e ‘l caro nodo
ond’ Amor di sua man m’avinse in modo
che l’amar mi fe’ dolce e ‘l piange gioco,
solfo et esca son tutto, et il cor un foco . . .
English by contrast is so consonantal. Two hundred years later, Thomas Wyatt used one of the sonnets in the Rime Sparse as the basis for his own poem. “Who so list to hount,” he wrote, “I knowe where is an hynde . . .” The familiar semi-magical Petrarchan markers are in place – a forest where the weary lover-hunter will lose his way, the elusive and singular deer who is both prey and fatal enchantress. But something has happened to the love story in its travels across time and geography. It’s partly in the sounds of the language, so dense and intricate in the mouth, and the freer play that English poetry can have in rhyme. But it’s not only that. In Petrarch, the white doe wears a collar studded with diamonds and topazes (emblems of steadfastness and chastity), which proclaims her untouchable: “It has pleased my Caesar to make me free.” The collar in Wyatt’s poem declares:
“Noli me tangere, for Cesars I ame; And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.”
Which doesn’t sound like the same thing at all: it seems to suggest a fraught earthly terrain where love and power and possession interact, rather than an idealising dream. And the woman isn’t merely the inspiration-aspiration of the poem’s trajectory, but has a psychology and will and passions of her own, which are part of the poet’s difficulty, as well as her attraction (“Yet may I by no meanes my weried mind / Drawe from the Diere”). The “Noli me tangere” reference to the Christian ideal whose spirit and language underpins the love-pursuit feels more risky, almost blasphemous, in Wyatt. It might have been written about Anne Boleyn – whom Wyatt may have loved, and who certainly wore Caesar’s collar. (Is it Anne who in a different poem dies unknown of herself, “dazed with dreadfull face”? There is a story that Wyatt was made to watch her execution.) In other Wyatt poems, it’s more or less explicit that the affairs are consummated. A girl walked in his chamber once “with naked fote”; “her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall, / And she me caught in her armes long and small”. That’s a real chamber, with boards underfoot, not a symbolic mind-space under a green laurel tree (lauro, Laura).
This is the double pulse of the expression of erotic love in literature, between the ideal and the real; between the archetypal space that the dreaming and the words open up in imagination, and the strong resistance that life and other people offer to assimilation to any idea. Shakespeare’s sonnets are structured around just this fertilising tension. He isn’t only torn between the male beloved (“lord of my love”, the fair angel, more lovely and temperate than a summer’s day) and the black-browed female whose eyes are nothing like the sun and whose breath “reeks” (the contrast between these extremes seems almost parodistic). The sonnets’ ambivalence is at the core of loving – “mine eye and heart are at a mortal war”. A language aspiring towards perfection and immutability is entangled in the knotty real textures of unfulfilment, difficulty, decay. Sonnet 95 is about the fair angel, not the dark one:
How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame Which like a canker in the fragrant Rose Doth spot the beautie of thy budding name? Oh in what sweets doest thou thy sinnes inclose! That tongue that tells the story of thy daies, (Making lascivious comments on thy sport) Cannot dispraise, but in a kinde of praise, Naming thy name, blesses an ill report. Oh what a mansion have those vices got, Which for their habitation chose out thee . . .
Simon May in his ambitious new book Love: A Secret History wants to trace the evolution of the idea of love in western culture, from Plato through the various phases of Christian thinking, via German romanticism and Nietzsche to the present day. He argues that we have a problem because “the tremendous liberation of sex and marriage over the past hundred years has been accompanied by love’s ossification, rather than its reinvention”, and that human love is now “widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment”. Such exaggerated hopes for love, he fears, can only set us up for failure.
Novalis’s Hymns to the Night were published in Prussia in 1800, when the poet-philosopher was 28; the moment of German romanticism is central to May’s argument because he believes the cult of love was born out of “reactions to the irretrievable loss of a divine world-order and the firm moorings it afforded”. Novalis’s 15-year-old fiancée Sophie von Kühn had died, and the hymns were inspired in a moment when he was “shedding bitter tears” beside her grave, “which in its narrow dark bosom hid the vanished form of my life”. A vision of Night came to him, “and at once snapped the bond of birth – the chains of the Light”; the broken lover was made whole in an upside-down world, where light and life turn out to be the lesser part of the world’s possibility; only death and night which hold out the possibility of renewal, and restoration of the lover’s loss. In the Hymns Sophie doesn’t actually feature much at all, and when she does she’s dissolved into an idealising generality: “through the cloud I saw the glorified face of my beloved. In her eyes eternity reposed – I laid hold of her hands, and the tears became a sparkling bond that could not be broken.” The Night is a haven and its light is the Beloved. Creative love is the daughter of Night. Poignantly the poetry infuses its deathly philosophy with youthful ardour and eroticism, recoiling from the terrible null sum of real sufferings. “Do we perhaps need so much energy and effort for ordinary and common things,” Novalis wrote in hisMiscellaneous Observations, “because for an authentic human being nothing is more out of the ordinary – nothing more uncommon than wretched ordinariness.” And, “at present this realm certainly seems to us so dark inside, lonely, shapeless.”
But that tradition in love-literature which sets a transcendent value on love, merging the love-object with divinity, is only one element in a developing complex whole. For every dream of unfettered longing a counteractive impulse seems sooner or later to assert itself: the restless scratch of observation, which snags on real things and difficult “wretched ordinariness”. Love-language has been pulled differently in different eras between the great generalising symbols – the heart, the rose, the fixed star – and language’s opposite capacity: finding words to capture the unique specificity of the loved one, inside her real moment in history. If all the Beloveds are fair, and roses, and fixed stars, then why one rather than another? Wouldn’t anyone do? Whether Petrarch’s Laura was real or not is a question for the margins of poetry. More important is whether it matters inside the poetry what Laura – or the fair angel, or the Beloved – was like, or what she felt, or whether she bore children or grew old. It has mattered more or less, at different moments in the history of literary sensibility.
May doesn’t write very much in his book about the novel form; but he ought to be reassured that on the whole it has cherished less transcendent expectations of romantic love than the troubadours. (In fact it’s never quite clear whose love-longings they are that seem to May so problematically idealising, at the end of a European 20th century when our scepticism has gone through idealisms pretty thoroughly, at least in serious writing – the story is different perhaps in film and pop music. His analysis ends with Freud and Proust, master demythologisers from 100 years ago, which doesn’t help explain.) Courtship, marriage and adultery have been the engine of the novel’s plot, significantly often. Yet there’s something in the novel’s fundamentals – its sheer volume unfolding in real time, its prose sentences tending onwards out of the moment, its prose-sound which can’t help resembling reasoned explanation – that makes it tend to act love out on earth, not aiming at the heavens.
There’s plenty of room inside a novel for love’s dreaming. Prince Andrei in War and Peace listens to Natasha Rostov singing one evening at the clavichord; that night he can’t sleep, he’s helplessly happy and has “a sudden, vivid awareness of the terrible opposition between something infinitely great and indefinable that was in him, and something narrow and fleshly that he himself, and even she, was . . . he felt as joyful and new in his soul as if he had gone from a stuffy room into God’s open world.” He knows next to nothing about Natasha, her separate life and thoughts (she knows even less about him). Love opens up for him on to this vision of a meaning beyond either of them; yet it depends on his electric attraction to her and her only, her particular slim girl’s body and mix of effrontery and naivety. The transcendent ambitions of his love are real and not to be discounted – even when later poor Natasha makes such a mess of everything. Confused by postponement and her ignorant sex-longings, she tries to run away with another man; Andrei falls back on the false reassurance of disillusion, discounting the hopes he had had as puerile (though he had accepted, in the depth of his vision, that she too was “narrow and fleshly”). Irony, however, isn’t meant to have the last word. It’s just that the story has to move on beyond the moment of ideal aspiration to its difficult fulfilment in time (and then on again, beyond the end of the lovers’ rupture, to when they are strangely reconciled in the flight from Moscow).
Realism needn’t aim to dismantle the ideal, or prove that it’s hollow. Tolstoy here only wants to capture the mystery of that generalising, transcendent yearning and then correct, as the story unfolds, for its likely interactions with the real. He’s like a painter making a mark on his paper and looking up to check, then making another mark closer to the way things actually are. Without the ideal longing – grown out of our pair-bonding nature – which first dreams love into being, there’s nowhere for its reality to take root. But in novels, love’s dreaming has consequences, it has to co-exist inside a book’s whole length with change and accidents and the sheer difficulty of mutuality (and sometimes, depending on the novelist, with disillusion, contempt, parody – irony may be allowed a freer rein than in Tolstoy).
In her 1995 novel The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald pays tender homage to Novalis’s romanticism, but tells the story of his love for Sophie in a language very different to the poet’s own. The novel begins not in “holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night”, but with the poet returning with a friend from university to his family home, finding them in the middle of washing-day, throwing “great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillowcases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants . . . were receiving them into giant baskets”. Exuberant, spilling over with their high spirits, imitating Fichte with whom they have studied in Jena, the two young men advance into the courtyard: “There is no such concept as a thing in itself” . . . “Let your thought be the washbasket! Have you thought the washbasket? Now then, gentlemen, let your thought be on that that thought the washbasket!” The housekeeper complains they are trampling on the unsorted garments.
For long periods the world of love has been represented in literature by those whose focus was less on the mantle of the Beloved than on what was hidden under or beyond it – on the one hand her nakedness, on the other essence, light, bliss (and the focus was also on the desiring self – “let your thought be on that that thought”). But the Beloved, all that time, had been taking care to dress to attract the desire of the Lover, choosing and sewing and maintaining the mantle. Once women stepped out of their place in the frame and began to write the story from their own point of view (and once their servants stepped out from invisibility), the sewing and washing side of love was bound to be brought rather more inside the picture.
There have been, of course, idealising portraits of the male beloved, but it’s difficult to imagine any male ideal, whether adored by a woman or by another man, offering to the adorer’s gaze quite the same unchanging stillness, the same rich eloquence of non-response as female love objects did, once upon a time. Even men’s love-writing about men, including Shakespeare’s, has tended to find the beloved love-object more agitatingly reactive than Petrarch ever found Laura; the attraction of the male is too firmly fastened to his being something, rather than simply being contemplated. And it’s unthinkable that Petrarch could ever have written into Laura what Cavafy rejoices at having seen in his boys: “desires glowing openly / in eyes that looked at you, / trembling for you in voices. . .” When Natasha burns in response to careless, useless, sensual Kuragin, it ruins her for Prince Andrei, not only because she’s betrayed him, but also because she’s betrayed his ideal of her chaste girlhood.
The Blue Flower is a study of just how the ideal in love might be interfused with the real, and the real with the ideal. Sophie is 12 when Novalis (22) first meets her and determines to marry her. Fitzgerald makes Sophie cheerful, childish, boisterous, affectionate, reluctant to commit to words. “She is not beautiful, she is not even pretty . . . empty-headed, moreover at twelve years old she has a double chin”, the poet’s brother thinks. Novalis asks her to write to him, but her letters are forced and dutiful. She is the solid object that stops and absorbs his airy aspirations; the living counterpoint to his abstractions. Stubbornly she deflects all his attempts to get her philosophising. “(‘Should you like to be born again?’ ‘Yes, if I could have fair hair.’) ‘I can’t comprehend her, I can’t get the measure of her. I love something that I do not understand.'” Without her poet-lover to dream her transcendent mystery into being, would Sophie only have been half herself, half realised? Certainly no one would remember her now. Perhaps she was simply ordinary, and only the poet’s fantasy made her exceptional. Or, perhaps “wretched ordinariness” itself is the deepest mystery, if love (and art) have only the genius to find it out. Fitzgerald’s Sophie refuses to believe in the afterlife. Does Novalis betray her memory in his poetry, having her disembodied spirit appear to him at her graveside?
In All About Love Lisa Appignanesi has made a sort of compendium of love stories, picking them from literature and history and philosophy and anecdotally from life. The effect of cramming so many passions all together inside one book is sometimes a bit like cake for breakfast, cake for lunch, cake for tea – you feel the need after a while for greens, or a nunnery (although no doubt it all goes on in nunneries too). What can we learn, from putting so many examples side by side? If anything, that the forms of love aren’t eternal. Our love-icons and constellations of love-imagery aren’t perennials, they’re rather what archaeologist Colin Renfrew calls constitutive symbols: “in defining symbols, we are not just playing with words, but recognising features of the material world with which human individuals come to engage”; “that engagement . . . is socially mediated, and it comes about when other features of the society make that feasible.” Desires, having their origin no doubt in the requirements of our biology and our socialisation, take on shapes and colours differently inside each different historical moment. Fitzgerald makes it clear in The Blue Flower just why love-language in early 19th-century Europe was so death-haunted: her last page is a litany of losses. Not only Sophie died, but also Novalis’s brothers and sisters, one after another, in their teens and twenties – and then the poet himself, of tuberculosis, less than a year after the publication of his Hymns. He needed to invent an upside-down night-world.
Appignanesi has enjoyed putting some unlikely writers to bed together; 12th-century Capellanus’s rules for love (“When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates”) sit alongside The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr Right, 1995 (“Don’t meet him halfway or go Dutch with him on a date”, and “Always end phone calls first”). “It is terrible to desire and not possess, and terrible to possess and not desire,” says Yeats; and Queen Victoria rants against the Women’s Rights “on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety”. “Happiness is not the question here,” Appignanesi writes. “We need love because it confronts us with the height and depths of our being.” Well, something like that. It’s hard, after all these centuries’ accumulations of love-writing, finding the new words to express new forms.
May’s preferred description of love is as “a yearning for ontological rootedness”. Which definitely leaves the last word to the poets and songwriters: such as Joni Mitchell, who calls it “the strongest poison and medicine of all”. Or Goethe in his Roman Elegies, taking time out from his studies “on classical soil” to spend with his new lover, fulfilling a literary tradition and at the same time seizing the once-only real opportunity of love in the here and now. In the Elegies ideal and real are poised in a perfect conjunction.
. . . when she sinks into sleep, wakeful and thoughtful I lie. Often I even compose my poetry in her embraces, Counting hexameter beats, tapping them out on her back Softly, with one hand’s fingers. She sweetly breathes in her slumber, Warmly the glow of her breath pierces the depths of my heart. Eros recalls, as he tends our lamp, how he did the same service For his Triumvirs, the three poets of love, long ago.
Tessa Hadley – The Guardian, Saturday 7 May 2011