Mortals in Love

I hope to write something about Arthur Miller, a playwright I like a lot, next week. Today is Valentine’s day, and I want to talk about love.

What is this craving, this yearning, that we call love? Well, let’s look to literature for answers. In the works of William Shakespeare, love is a life-defining event, a sudden all-consuming passion, a realization of adulthood, and also a tragic miasma from which many will never return. In Shakespeare’s world, love was not safe. Romeo and Juliet did not survive it; neither did Hamlet or Ophelia, nor Lord and Lady Macbeth, nor Othello and Desdemona.

These were Shakespeare’s most powerful and memorable characters, all of them doomed. But Shakespeare also wrote comedies, in which he generally allowed his characters to live. My favorite is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, a vast and perfect riot of romance and human error.


This play is set in Athens, Greece at a pagan festival celebrating the summer solstice (an ancient tradition echoed in a variety of other artistic and cultural forms, from the “Walpurgis Night” scenes in Goethe’s “Faust” to today’s Burning Man). The entire city is caught up in the excitement of the coming festival, including a royal family, a comical troupe of unprofessional actors attempting to put on a play, and four young lovers who run into a dark forest and get lost (predating “The Blair Witch Project” by 400 years).

What these mortals don’t know is that the summer solstice has also filled the forest with mischievous spirits, super-beings, fairies and magical creatures of various types. The spirit-creatures are mostly oblivious to the mortals, but the fairy king Oberon and his assistant Puck conjure up a scheme that crosses into the other world. Potions and spells abound, most of them missing their intended targets, and complete chaos breaks out in the middle of the night. The four young lovers become tragically confused about who loves who, while a dull-minded and unimpressive actor gets turned into a donkey and somehow ends up making love with the fairy queen Titania, all the while attended by forest pixies with names like Mustard Seed, Cobweb, Peas-Blossom and Moth, in what is certainly the most luxurious moment of his life.

By morning, it’s all forgotten, and the festival goes on. We are made to understand the vulnerability of all human beings — from humble townspeople to vapid young lovers to grand rulers of the spirit world — to the mysteries of the dark night. Love carries no death sentence here, and the moral of the play is that we do best to simply succumb to our urges and inner spells when they hit us. As if we ever had a choice.

Both Shakespeare’s tragedies and his comedies reflect the awesome scale of love, the way it blooms hugely in the human soul. I guess I know a little about this because, a few years ago, I skeptically found myself falling in love with a person whose charms managed to knock out all my defenses. I’m not scared of much in this world, but I’m smart enough to be scared of love, because I know how much power it holds. As in Shakespeare’s forest, for me love remains a magical spell, a mysterious opening into a world of pure emotion and no logic, a realm of intoxicating confusion that is as delicious as it is dizzying.

So, even though I usually try to avoid hokey holidays, I need to send a shout-out today to that special someone who is out there, lost with me in the Athenian woods.

And I’d like to ask you: what writer, book, poem, play or quote best represents the meaning of love in your life, and in your world?

(oberon)
flower of this purple dye,
hit with cupid’s archery,
sink in apple of his eye
when his love he doth espy
let her shine as gloriously
as the venus of the sky
when thou wakest, if she be by,
beg of her for remedy

(puck)
captain of our fairy band,
helena is here at hand;
and the youth, mistook by me,
pleading for a lover’s fee,
shall we their fond pageant see?
lord, what fools these mortals be

26 Responses

  1. Finnegan’s Wake:I haven’t
    Finnegan’s Wake:

    I haven’t read it, but then, I don’t actually want to.

    Yep. That pretty much sums it up.

  2. Love–I particularly and
    Love–

    I particularly and fantastically have always loved Pablo Neruda’s words of love. While tirelessly infinite when discussing the finite I find his touching use of language easy, if not far too beautiful. I know, on this day of a saint I will never meet, I have found a love that has allowed me to be lost without caring what the end of the road will be–I care only about the hunt, the journey, and the hand I will hold on my way.

    Happy Valentine’s to all,
    Kate

    Sonnet XXV
    Pablo Neruda

    Before I loved you, Love, nothing was my own;
    I wavered through the streets, among objects:
    nothing mattered or had a name:
    the world was made of air, which waited.

    I knew rooms full of ashes,
    tunnels where the moon lived,
    rough warehouses that growled Get lost,
    questions that insisted in the sand.

    Everything was empty, dead, mute,
    fallen, abandoned, and decayed:
    inconceivably alien, it all

    belonged to someone else-to no one:
    till your beauty and your poverty
    filled the autumn plentiful with gifts.

  3. Sex Without Love,
    Sex Without Love, Ferlinghetti, +1

    Sex Without Love–Sharon Olds

    How do they do it, the ones who make love
    without love? Beautiful as dancers,
    gliding over each other like ice-skaters
    over the ice, fingers hooked
    inside each other’s bodies, faces
    red as steak, wine, wet as the
    children at birth whose mothers are going to
    give them away. How do they come to the
    come to the come to the God come to the
    still waters, and not love
    the one who came there with them, light
    rising slowly as steam off their joined
    skin? These are the true religious,
    the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
    accept a false Messiah, love the
    priest instead of the God. They do not
    mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
    they are like great runners: they know they are alone
    with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
    the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
    vascular health–just factors, like the partner
    in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
    single body alone in the universe
    against its own best time.

    The below, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, From Coney Island of the Mind, has been translated into 20 languages.

    cast up the heart flops over gasping love
    foolish fish
    which tries to draw its breath from flesh of air
    and no one there to hear its death among the sad bushes
    where the world rushes by in a blather of asphalt and delay

    Chet Baker’s Funny Valentine’s about’s what’s going on with me now, sometimes.

  4. Infernal DesireI WANDER all
    Infernal Desire

    I WANDER all night in my vision,
    Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping,
    Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers,
    Wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory,
    Pausing, gazing, bending, and stopping.

    I too pass from the night,
    I stay a while away, O night, but I return to you again, and love you.
    ———

    Those are two segments from papa Walt’s ‘The Sleepers’ the second part is what immediately struck me as I thought of love in poetry. though I might not know why.

    I thought some more on the subject and dragged my milkcrate of records out of the closet. From therein I withdrew my Cummings records and put him on. Turning and turning in the widening gyre. oh wait…

    “sweet spring is your
    time is my time is our
    time for springtime is lovetime
    and viva sweet love”

    (all the merry little birds are
    flying in the floating in the
    very spirits singing in
    are winging in the blossoming)

    lovers go and lovers come
    awandering awondering
    but any two are perfectly
    alone there’s nobody else alive

    (such a sky and such a sun
    i never knew and neither did you
    and everybody never breathed
    quite so many kinds of yes)

    not a tree can count his leaves
    each herself by opening
    but shining who by thousands mean
    only one amazing thing

    (secretly adoring shyly
    tiny winging darting floating
    merry in the blossoming
    always joyful selves are singing)

    “sweet spring is your
    time is my time is our
    time for springtime is lovetime
    and viva sweet love”

    -eddie estlin cummings therewrit.

    The sentiment, at least, is positive.

    Oh love is sweet and a song and he conveys it more within his many images, pages and ideas. There’s the sexy car poem… probably lacking on the love front. And ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ is a heartrending fable.

    If you really want to think about it you could mention Roland Barthes’ ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ or even you could mention Kierkegaard … if you can pronounce it.

    But you’re better off to look through Gregory Corso and Frank O’Hara … love is found in the poets … why is that?

    Actually now that I’ve gone on too long I recall Angela Carter’s ‘The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman’ which may portray a truer portrait of love than any poem. Where the power of love kills and distracts … the body can keep living long after love has killed you.

  5. CombinedI like my poems about
    Combined

    I like my poems about love, although they usually have a doomed ending.

    I like Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare thee to a Summer’s day”. It is cheesy, but the kind of thing you wish you had the guts to say to people you like.

    I like the lines in Under the Bridge that say “At least I have her love, the city she loves me”

    And there’s a movie called Italian for Beginners that is Danish.
    I guess maybe because it’s in subtitles you have to pay attention closely but they capture the magic of relationships pretty well.

    I guess combine all this and you get a good love sonnet or something.

  6. Great additions, Mindbum.
    Great additions, Mindbum. Good call on Corso, yeah, he wrote some good ones. I was already thinking about Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or” (as well as Plato’s “Symposium”. Haven’t read Barthes, though — I will try that one.

  7. Shakespeare and Chili Peppers
    Shakespeare and Chili Peppers … that’s my kind of mix. Thanks Andeh.

  8. CoquettishRoguish: yes I’m
    Coquettish

    Roguish: yes I’m also fascinated by that reception of the ‘natural interaction’, called love, often disguised for human, seemingly conscious eyes as in that quotation from Shakespeare — but then, the world of today seems (only seems) more complicated, and there are changes over times and age. I’d like intellectual streaks (Sartre, Beauvoir, Nin), revolutionary ones (Kollontai), with the wisdom/solidarity of everyday life (Saroyan), the often rough trade overlay of society’s context (Carver, also, partly, House of Leaves), contemplative and wished for, when all is achieved, and said and done, and time on our hands (Ammons, Purdy, Sagan). The reality, yes reality weave of Finnegan’s Wake, Jamelah, adapt its melange to the fierce colors of today. Views on love as hard work (Algarin), a bit of actuality and irony (Garp, Woody Allen, Wolfe).

    I also keep on being carried away by myriads of Rock lyrics, Kinks, Doors, Jefferson Airplane — Miracles which can be correlated to reality, since youth’s burning the liquor of satisfaction, melting together, the trial for consistence between knowledge about hormones and giving in to wicked dangerous romanticism, emotions, Love reign / rain o’er me (Who), declare teleonomic biofunctions and social care and roles, and still fall, fall — or better off with age and sympathies cool nectar / bitter remedy (and renewal), sharpening the eye once more in sweet consolation.

    But above all, the voice of Kerouac in Big Sur: “the irrational mortal loneliness is … raised up like a sacred urn to heaven in the mere fact of the taking off of clothes and clashing wits and bodies in the inexpressibly nervously sad delight of love”

    “nobody in the world even ever dares to write the true story of love”

    “in unbelievable surrendering sweetness so distant from all our mental fearful abstraction”

    … giving expression to that old natural circle, but as well comprising hesitation, social functions, and that implicit yearning for transcendence, transdurance, the (ab)solution for / from original sin (rem. Baudelaire, cp. Neruda, Hikmet) in love, in a Catholic-tender-sensual-meditative-ecstatic way that thrills me, resounds in me: all my experience and sensations.

    I think that in our present societies we still have much to change to be able to address love in such a way, to make it a collective ritual liberating force, and there are even intensely regressive forces at work, romantic and idealising rigidity, power motivation, possession – beyond rational balance and fair social responsibility.

    Longing for the final blurring of lines, of frontiers like in that Midsummer Night’s Dream, the game of existence, reaching out, converging, forgiving in older age even, give us some peace, insight, in time, for mortal sins.

  9. Song of Solomon, old
    Song of Solomon, old boy…

    Levi, your enthusiasm for Shakespeare is contagious. You have an appreciation and understanding of the Bard which I admire.

    For my reply, I’ve chosen some excerpts from the Song of Solomon:

    He says, Oh, that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out

    She says, If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and none would despise me. I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of her that conceived me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!

    He says, Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies… Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.

    She says, With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am sick with love behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills…like a gazelle, or a young stag.

    Now, that’s some Old-Testament-school Valentine! I must say, I like the Bible, even if I do cuss and smoke.

    As much as people want to be logical, sometimes we experience magic that can’t be explained. It’s been said that in order to love, we have to have free will. Otherwise, we would be like robots. But because we have free will, we can make mistakes. But because of love, we can be forgiven for those mistakes. This demonstrates that love has a lot of ‘buts’. That is logical, because I love buts.

  10. Neruda and PetrarchIn a
    Neruda and Petrarch

    In a workshop I am currently taking we are studying the works of Pablo Neruda and asked to write a poem that riffs off of his early but most famous works on love, a subject I find very difficult to write about.

    While reading, I was struck by how the conventional tropes of love poetry dating back to the troubadors still pervade the modernist works.

    So I choose a canzone from Petrarch that picks up the theme of being shipwrecked by love:

    Passa la nave mia colma d’oblio
    Per aspro mare, a mezza notte il verno,
    Enfra Scilla et Caribdi; et al governo
    Siede l signore, anzi l nimico mio.

    A ciascun remo un penser pronto et rio
    Che a tempesta e l fin par ch’abbi a scherno;
    La vela rompe un vento humido eterno
    Di sospir, di speranze et di desio.

    Pioggia di lagrimar, nebbia de sdegni
    Bagna et rallenta le gia stanche sarte,
    Che son d’error con ingnorantia attorto.

    Celansi i duo mei dolci usati segni;
    Morta fra l’onde e la ragion et l’arte,
    Tal ch’incomincio a desperar del porto.

    My ship laden with oblivion
    Passes through harsh seas at midnight in winter
    Between Scylla and Carybdis, and at the helm
    Sits my lord, rather my enemy.

    At each oar a thought hasty and cruel
    That scorns the tempest and the end;
    The sail and a wet, eternal wind
    Of sighs, hopes, and desires break each other;

    A rain of tears, a fog of disdain
    Drenches and loosens the already tired ropes
    Which are made of error entwined with ignorance.

    Hidden are my two usual sweet stars;
    Reason and art, dead among the waves,
    Such that I am beginning to despair of the port.

  11. Last PoemThere is one love
    Last Poem

    There is one love poem that makes me shake. It was written by the French poet Robert Desnos. He was arrested for resistance activity during the Nazi occupation, and sent to Auschwitz. In 1945, a few days after liberation, Desnos died of typhoid fever in Theresienstadt. On his body they found a revision of a poem Desnos had written to his wife years before. These words are among the last he ever wrote.

    I have so fiercely dreamed of you
    And walked so far and spoken of you so,
    Loved a shade of you so hard
    That now I’ve no more left of you.
    I’m left to be a shade among the shades
    A hundred times more shade than shade
    To be shade cast time and time again into your sun-transfigured life.

  12. Love songsTalking about love
    Love songs

    Talking about love I can’t avoid in first place love songs. Some of them old love songs that I know since a long time. I love these somehow bare-direct love songs:

    — Seminare by Ser’ Gir’n
    — Canci’n del pinar by Fandermole
    — Love by John Lennon
    — Meu bem, meu mal; Queixa, Surpresa by Caetano Veloso
    — Puente by Gustavo Cerati

    (There are more…)

  13. does it for me, Bill.why
    does it for me, Bill.

    why bother to write love poetry when these rhapsodies sing and have sung us for so long

  14. I’m wondering what Jack meant
    I’m wondering what Jack meant when he said, “Nobody in the world even ever dares to write the true story of love.” What does it mean to you? I’m just curious.

  15. Tristran and IsoldeIn the
    Tristran and Isolde

    In the story, Isolde is promised to be married to King Mark, who sends Tristran to fetch isolde. Since it’s an arranged marriage, Isolde’s mother makes a love potion so that Isolde will not be in a loveless marriage. However, on accident, Tristran and Isolde, thinking the love potion is wine, drink it and instantly fall in love. Isolde’s maid finds out, and says to Tristran: “you’ve drunk your death.” And he replies (paraphrasing): “if what you mean by my death is the love I have for Isolde, that is my life. If what you mean is the penalty I shall suffer when Mark finds out (beheading), I willingly accept that. But, if what you mean by my death is eternal damnation in the fie pits of hell, I accept that too.”

  16. Songs of Solomon, Reprise.The
    Songs of Solomon, Reprise.

    The Songs of Solomon are wonderful earthy parts of “the Bible”. They have staying power in my mind, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What we're up to ...

Litkicks is 26 years old! This website has been on a long and wonderful journey since 1994. We’re relaunching the whole site on a new platform in June 2021, and will have more updates soon. We’ve also been busy producing a couple of podcasts – please check them out.

World BEYOND War: A New Podcast
Lost Music: Exploring Literary Opera

Explore related articles ...