Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Love, What It Is"

What is love?  I haven't a clue.  I'd like to think that I have experienced it. But who really knows?

Call me a coward, but I tend to think that love is one of those experiences that are so intimately bound up with the essence of being human that they can only be lived, and any attempt to "explain" or "define" them is doomed to failure.  The nature of the soul, the notion of beauty, and the experience of death fall into the same category.

I am thus tempted to fall back upon my old standby in situations of this sort:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness) (1921).  Of course, Wittgenstein is only repeating what Taoist and Buddhist philosophers stated centuries ago. And what they say is true, you know.  (Contrary to what purveyors of Science would have you believe, all of this explaining we moderns engage in gets us nowhere.)

Claughton Pellew-Harvey, "View from the Studio" (1930)

Still, I believe that the subject of love can be approached aslant, which is where poetry comes in.  Hence, for example, I recently came across the following poems by Robert Herrick.

               Love, What It Is

Love is a circle that doth restless move
In the same sweet eternity of love.

Robert Herrick, Poem 29, Hesperides (1648).

Herrick's most recent editors suggest that the source of the poem is a traditional proverb.  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 519.  They also cite two lines from a masque by Ben Jonson titled "Love's Welcome at Bolsover" as a possible source:  "Love is a circle, both the first and last/Of all our actions."  Ibid.  Finally, they reference a passage from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy:  "[Love is] circulus a bono in bonum, a round circle still from good to good; for love is the beginner and end of all our actions."  Ibid.

I next encountered this, in which "from good to good" (coincidentally or not) makes an appearance:

                         Upon Love

Love is a Circle, and an Endless Sphere;
From good to good, revolving here, and there.

Robert Herrick, Poem 839, Hesperides.

This helps to illuminate "Love, What It Is."  To some extent.  Both poems sound lovely, and feel as though they have the ring of truth.  After encountering them, I came across a third poem by Herrick which brings things together.

                    Of Love

How Love came in, I do not know,
Whether by th'eye, or ear, or no:
Or whether with the soul it came
(At first) infused with the same:
Whether in part 'tis here or there,
Or, like the soul, whole every where:
This troubles me: but I as well
As any other, this can tell;
That when from hence she does depart,
The out-let then is from the heart.

Robert Herrick, Poem 73, Hesperides.

"This troubles me" is marvelous.  And this is wonderful:  "Or whether with the soul it came/(At first) infused with the same."  As is this:  "like the soul, whole every where."  In this context, love as a circle, love as "an Endless Sphere," and love as a "sweet eternity" make perfect sense.  The final two lines are lovely, and bring us back to earth.

W. G. Poole, "Plant Against a Winter Landscape" (1938)

However, I do not wish to be reductive.  (And I do not think that Herrick is being reductive.  He simply provides us with beautiful possibilities.) Defining love destroys it.  As I say, it is best approached tangentially, at an oblique angle.

                    Love Without Hope

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire's own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

Robert Graves, Poems (1927).

Few poems capture love's heart-pang and its internal airiness (that catch of the breath) as well as this.

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder."  Yes and no, experience teaches us.  But I do think that the feeling of an absence -- of a lack -- is another way of approaching love aslant.  Absence brings home what fullness is.  Or something like that.

Only the moon
high in the sky
as an empty reminder --
but if, looking at it, we just remember,
our two hearts may meet.

Saigyo (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991).  The poem is an untitled waka (five lines, with a syllable count in Japanese of 5-7-5-7-7). It is prefaced by this note:  "When I was in retirement in a distant place, I sent this to someone in the capital around the time when there was a moon."  Ibid, page 123.

     The Land with Wind in the Leaves

Distance cannot remove me from that place.
I stand half a world away and here it is:
A green sway and roar -- blue, vast, open
And refusing always to let me depart.

     Yorkshire 1987 -- Tokyo 1992

sip (Tokyo/Seattle 1992).

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Window" 

14 comments:

Bruce Floyd said...

We learned the Whole of Love—
The Alphabet—the Words—
A Chapter—then the mighty Book—
Then—Revelation closed—

But in Each Other's eyes
An Ignorance beheld—
Diviner than the Childhood's—
And each to each, a Child—

Attempted to expound
What Neither—understood—
Alas, that Wisdom is so large—
And Truth—so manifold!
--Emily Dickinson

Study love all you want, put it to the autopsy, under the microscope of sober and grave men in white gowns, seek out the soothsayer, urge the summer wind to reveal love's secret, tell us what it tells the oak limbs on bright nights.

It will not work. When we have learned all that the human heart can learn about love we still dwell in ignorance. The riddle is beyond us, farther than the most distant star speeding into infinity, plunging into forever nothingness. The wisdom of love is too large for us, and manifold truth eludes the grasping fingers of our imaginations.

Esther said...

Thank you for sharing your poem. I see that for you, too, Kenneth Rexroth's morning raven still perches "on the balcony of the Ueno Park of the heart."

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz,

Another wonderful post and more Herrick too!

I have two quotes to share which seem to fit well with what you've written here.

The first from Anais Nin, not a writer I usually read,but I came across these lines many years ago and copied them into a notebook;
"Do not seek the because in love, there is no because, no reason, no explanation, no solution".

The second from Wendell Berry;
"The world is whole beyond human knowing...untouched by the clockwork of explanation".

I agree with what you say about the lines from Robert Graves. It really does capture that agony of being one struck by love.

I assume the words that end this post, The land with wind in the leaves are your own. I like them very much. There are places in this world for all of us that no matter how physically distant we are, always maintain that hold on us.

RTD said...

"Love" used to be one of the great topics/themes for poetry. I wonder when it started to become unfashionable? Theory: early 20th century -- at which time "love" became the grist for greeting cards [and later in the century -- the likes of Rod McKuen]. Of course, I could be quite wrong about the "death" of "love" in modern poetry.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you very much for sharing your thought-provoking comments, with which I agree. "When we have learned all that the human heart can learn about love we still dwell in ignorance" is a fine way of putting it.

And, as usual, you have provided us with a lovely and apt contribution from Dickinson. "in Each Other's eyes/An Ignorance beheld" is particularly nice, I think.

As ever, I greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you for visiting again, and for your kind words. I am not familiar with the Rexroth poem you quote from (the only things I have read by him are his translations of Chinese poetry and of the Greek Anthology). However, I will try to track it down -- it sounds lovely. The ravens of Japan are quite impressive: large and foreboding, especially when they haunt cemeteries, as they often do. So I can see why they would have attracted Rexroth's attention.

For the record: the location of my poem was Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine) in Tokyo, which is famous for its iris garden. It is on the other side of town from Ueno Park (as you probably know).

Thank you again. I hope you will return soon.

Bruce Harrow said...

How’s this for that transcendent, divine, and inexpressible thing called love?
Shakespeare evokes an idea in vivid, breathtaking imagery. Love is defined and explained by describing it, not analysing it.

‘Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him, and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine,
And all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.’

Esther said...

How very interesting! In The City of the Moon, which contains eleven short poems written by Rexroth in Kyoto in 1972, the poem immediately preceding the one about Ueno Park is set in an iris garden with a "twisting foot bridge." (Meiji Jingu?)

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Aston: Thank you very much for those quotes, both of which are new to me, and both of which are wonderful. "The clockwork of explanation" is particularly nice.

And thank you as well for the kind words about the post and my (meager) poem. I felt it fit with the theme of absence helping us to define fullness.

As for Herrick: he, as you know well, pretty much covers all of life -- a never-ending source of delight and wisdom

As always, I greatly appreciate your stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Harrow: Thank you very much for this: it is beautiful. It brings to mind two poems from The Greek Anthology that are attributed to "Plato" (whether Plato the philosopher or Plato an obscure minor poet has never been definitively determined). You are probably familiar with both of them.

The first is translated by Shelley (who you and I discussed last post!):

Thou wert the morning star among the living,
Ere thy fair light had fled;
Now, having died, thou art as Hesperus, giving
New splendour to the dead.

Here is the second:

My star, thou view'st the stars on high:
Would that I were that spangled sky,
That I, thence looking down on thee,
With all its eyes thy charms might see.

The translation is by Lord Neaves, who adds some flourishes to the original. Here is a prose translation by J. W. Mackail: "On the stars thou gazest, my Star; would I were heaven to look at thee with many eyes." I think this is preferable, for its brevity and simplicity.

The conceits are different, of course, but all three pieces evoke, as you say, the "inexpressible" very well.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing the Shakespeare with us.

Stephen Pentz said...

RTD: I tend to agree with you. The Elizabethan period and the first half of the 17th century were probably the heyday for love poetry, weren't they? I usually spend part of each year with Norman Ault's fine anthologies Elizabethan Lyrics and Seventeenth Century Lyrics, and I am always struck by the movement back and forth from love poems to poems about our mortality (although I think love poems predominate). I have returned to Herrick the past three weeks and he visits love on nearly every page.

But I think that the topic is still present in 20th century poetry. (I cannot speak to contemporary poetry, since I do not read much of it.) To cite just a few examples: Hardy, Yeats, Frost, Edward Thomas, Auden, MacNeice, and Larkin all write about it. Not paeans and love-sick pleadings in the Elizabethan fashion, of course. But in our "modern" fashion.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much for the follow-up comment. Since you posted your first comment, I have been trying unsuccessfully to find the Ueno poem on the Internet. And, after receiving your latest comment, I have tried to find "The City of the Moon" sequence, and have found only a few excerpts, but not the Ueno or Meiji JIngu poems. I'll have to go to the library.

Although I have not seen Rexroth's poem, I'm fairly certain that he must have been writing about Meiji Jingu: it is famous for its iris garden, which attracts large crowds. On the other hand, Ueno Koen (park) is famous for its cherry blossoms (as are, of course, a number of other places in Japan), and it is the traditional site of blossom-viewing parties.

I greatly appreciate your directing me to Rexroth's poems on this subject.

George said...

Some years ago, I found a bilingual Cavalcanti, and discovered just how much the the Elizabethans drew on the Italians. (Yes, I know Ezra Pound told us all about it, but somehow I had never followed up.) The book, I see, is still in print: http://www.italicapress.com/index021.html

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for the reference to Cavalcanti, and for pointing out Pound's role in this. You prompted me to pull out my copy of Pound's Translations (New Directions 1963), which contains translations by Pound of 50 or so of Cavalcanti's poems. Although Pound lost me with The Cantos, I still enjoy his early poems, including his (notoriously creative) translations of Cavalcanti and others. I appreciate the link to the additional translation, which I was not aware of.

Thank you very much for visiting again.