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.)
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,
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: