Do the Phaedrus and the Symposium leave anything to be said on the relationship of love and poetry? In the last analysis, probably not. The poet, however, is not one to keep silence because of a dearth of new philosophical conceptions. As he discovers, with ever fresh wonder, the power of love as muse, each new poet, in turn, is wont to pour his gratitude for his inspiration into song, undeterred by the fact that love has received many encomiums before.
It is not strange that this hymn should be broken by rude taunts on the part of the uninitiated.
Saynt Idiote, Lord of these foles alle,
Chaucer’s Troilus called Love, long ago, and the general public has been no less free with this characterization in the last century than in the fourteenth. Nor is it merely that part of the public which associates all verse with sentimentality, and flees from it as from a contagion, which thus sneers at the praise lovers give to their divinity. On the contrary, certain young aspirants to the poet’s laurel, feeling that the singer’s indebtedness to love is an overworked theme, have tried, like the non-lover of the Phaedrus, to charm the literary public by the novelty of a different profession. As the non-lover of classic Greece was so fluent in his periods that Socrates and Phaedrus narrowly escaped from being overwhelmed by his much speaking, so the non-lover of the present time says much for himself.
In the first place, our non-lover may assure us, the nature of love is such that it involves contempt for the life of a bard. For love is a mad pursuit of life at first hand, in its most engrossing aspect, and it renders one deaf and blind to all but the object of the chase; while poetry is, as Plato points out, only a pale and lifeless imitation of the ardors and delights which the lover enjoys at first hand. Moreover, one who attempts to divide his attention between the muse and an earthly mistress, is likely not only to lose the favor of the former, but, as the ubiquity of the rejected poet in verse indicates, to lose the latter as well, because his temperament will incline him to go into retirement and meditate upon his lady’s charms, when he should be flaunting his own in her presence. It will not be long, indeed, before he has so covered the object of his affection with the leafage of his fancy, that she ceases to have an actual existence for him at all. The non-lover may remind us that even so ardent an advocate of love as Mrs. Browning voices this danger, confessing, in Sonnets of the Portuguese,
My thoughts do twine and bud About thee, as wild vines about a tree
Put out broad leaves, and soon there’s nought to see
Except the straggling green that hides the wood.
The non-lover may also recall to our minds the notorious egotism and self-sufficiency of the poet, which seem incompatible with the humility and insatiable yearning of the lover. He exults in the declaration of Keats,
My solitude is sublime,—for, instead of what I have described (i.e., domestic bliss) there is sublimity to welcome me home; the roaring of the wind is my wife; and the stars through the windowpanes are my children; the mighty abstract idea of beauty in all things, I have, stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness.
Borne aloft by his admiration for this passage, the non-lover may himself essay to be sublime. He may picture to us the frozen heights on which genius resides, where the air is too rare for earthly affection. He may declare that Keats’ Grecian Urn is a symbol of all art, which must be
All breathing human passion far above.
He will assert that the mission of the poet is “to see life steadily and see it whole,” a feat which is impossible if the worship of one figure out of the multitude is allowed to distort relative values, and to throw his view out of perspective.
Finally, the enemy of love may call as witnesses poets whom he fancies he has led astray. Strangely enough, considering the dedication of the Ring and the Book, he is likely to give most conspicuous place among these witnesses to Browning. Like passages of Holy Writ, lines from Browning have been used as the text for whatever harangue a new theorist sees fit to give us. In Youth and Art, the non-lover will point out the characteristic attitude of young people who are “married to their art,” and consequently have no capacity for other affection. In Pauline, he will gloat over the hero’s confession that he is inept in love because he is concerned with his perceptions rather than with their objects, and his explanation,
I am made up of an intensest life;
Of a most clear idea of consciousness
Of self …
And I can love nothing,—and this dull truth
Has come at last: but sense supplies a love
Encircling me and mingling with my life.
He will point out that Sordello is another example of the same type, for though Sordello is ostensibly the lover of Palma, he really finds nothing outside himself worthy of his unbounded adoration. Turning to Tennyson, in Lucretius the non-lover will note the tragic death of the hero that grows out of the asceticism in love engendered by his absorption in composition. With the greatest pride the enemy of love will point to his popularity in the 1890’s, when the artificial and heartless artist enjoyed his greatest vogue. As his most scintillating advocate he will choose Oscar Wilde. Assuring us of many prose passages in his favor, he will read to us the expression of conflict between love and art in Flower of Love, where Wilde exclaims,
I have made my choice, have lived my poems, and though my youth is
gone in wasted days,
I have found the lover’s crown of myrtle better than the poet’s
crown of bays,
and he will read the record of the same sense of conflict, in different mood, expressed in the sonnet Hélas:
To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom and austere control?
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelai,
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God.
Is that time dead? Lo, with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance,
And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?
And yet, when the non-lover has finally arrived at the peroration of his defense, we may remain unshaken in our conviction that from the Song of Solomon to the Love Songs of Sara Teasdale, the history of poetry constitutes an almost unbroken hymn to the power of love, “the poet, and the source of poetry in others,” as Agathon characterized him at the banquet in Love’s honour. Within the field of our especial inquiry, the last century, we may rest assured that there is no true poet whose work, rightly interpreted, is out of tune with this general acclaim. Even Browning and Oscar Wilde are to be saved, although, it may be, only as by fire.
The influence of love upon poetry, which we are assuming with such a priori certainty, is effected in various ways. The most obvious, of course, is by affording new subject matter. The confidence of Shakespeare,
How can my muse want subject to invent
While thou dost breathe, that pourest into my verse
Thine own sweet argument?
is at least as characteristic of the nineteenth as of the sixteenth century. The depletion of our lyric poetry, if everything relating to the singer’s love affairs were omitted, is appalling even to contemplate. Yet, if this were the extent of love’s influence upon poetry, one would have to class it, in kind if not in degree, with any number of other personal experiences that have thrilled the poet to composition.
The scope of love’s influence is widened when one reflects upon its efficacy as a prize held up before the poet, spurring him on to express himself. In this aspect poetry is often a form of spiritual display comparable to the gay plumage upon the birds at mating season. In the case of women poets, verse often affords an essentially refined and lady-like manner of expressing one’s sentiments toward a possible suitor. The convention so charmingly expressed in William Morris’ lines, Rhyme Slayeth Shame, seems to be especially grateful to them. At times the ruse fails, as a writer has recently admitted:
All sing it now, all praise its artless art,
But ne’er the one for whom the song was made,
[Footnote: Edith Thomas, Vos non Nobis.]
but perhaps the worth of the poetry is not affected by the stubbornness of its recipient. Sara Teasdale very delicately names her anthology of love poems by women, The Answering Voice, but half the poems reveal the singer speaking first, while a number of them show her expressing an open-minded attitude toward any possible applicant for her hand among her readers. But it is not merely for its efficacy as a matrimonial agency that poets are indebted to love.
Since the nineteenth century is primarily the age of the love story, personal experience of love has been invaluable to the poet in a third way. The taste of the time has demanded that the poet sing of the tender theme almost exclusively, whether in dramatic, lyric or narrative, whether in historical or fictional verse. This is, of course, one reason that, wherever the figure of a bard appears in verse, he is almost always portrayed as a lover. Not to illustrate exhaustively, three of the most widely read poems with poet heroes, of the beginning, middle and end of the century respectively, i. e., Moore’s Lalla Rookh, Mrs. Browning’s Lady Geraldine’s Courtship, and Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House, all depend for plot interest upon their hero’s implication in a love affair. The authors’ love affairs were invaluable, no doubt, since a poet is not be expected to treat adequately a passion which he has not experienced himself. It is true that one hears from time to time, notably in the 1890’s, that the artist should remain apart from, and coldly critical of the emotions he portrays. But this is not the typical attitude of our period. When one speaks thus, he is usually thought to be confusing the poet with the literary man, who writes from calculation rather than from inspiration. The dictum of Aristotle, “Those who feel emotion are most convincing through a natural sympathy with the characters they represent,” has appeared self-evident to most critics of our time.
But the real question of inspiration by love goes deeper and is connected with Aristotle’s further suggestion that poetry involves “a strain of madness,” a statement which we are wont to interpret as meaning that the poet is led by his passions rather than by his reason. This constitutes the gist of the whole dispute between the romanticist and the classicist, and our poets are such ardent devotees of love as their muse, simply because, in spite of other short-lived fads, the temper of the last century has remained predominantly romantic. It is obvious that the idea of love as a distraction and a curse is the offspring of classicism. If poetry is the work of the reason, then equilibrium of soul, which is so sorely upset by passionate love, is doubtless very necessary. But the romanticist represents the poet, not as one drawing upon the resources within his mind, but as the vessel filled from without. His afflatus comes upon him and departs, without his control or understanding. Poetical inspiration, to such a temperament, naturally assumes the shape of passion. Bryant’s expression of this point of view is so typical of the general attitude as to seem merely commonplace. He tells us, in The Poet,
No smooth array of phrase,
Artfully sought and ordered though it be,
Which the cold rhymer lays
Upon his page languid industry
Can wake the listless pulse to livelier speed.
* * * * *
The secret wouldst thou know
To touch the heart or fire the blood at will?
Let thine own eyes o’erflow;
Let thy lips quiver with the passionate thrill.
Seize the great thought, ere yet its power be past,
And bind, in words, the fleet emotion fast.
Coleridge’s comprehension of this fact led him to cry, “Love is the vital air of my genius.” [Footnote: Letter to his wife, March 12, 1799.]
All this, considering the usual subject-matter of poetry, is perhaps only saying that the poet must be sincere. The mathematician is most sincere when he uses his intellect exclusively, but a reasoned portrayal of passion is bound to falsify, for it leads one insensibly either to understate, or to burlesque, or to indulge in a psychopathic analysis of emotion. [Footnote: Of the latter type of poetry a good example is Edgar Lee Masters’ Monsieur D—— and the Psycho-Analyst.]
Accordingly, our poets have not been slow to remind us of their passionate temperaments. Landor, perhaps, may oblige us to dip into his biography in order to verify our thesis that the poet is invariably passionate, but in many cases this state of things is reversed, the poet being wont to assure us that the conventional incidents of his life afford no gauge of the ardors within his soul. Thus Wordsworth solemnly assures us,
Had I been a writer of love poetry, it would have been natural to me to write with a degree of warmth which could hardly have been approved by my principles, and which might have been undesirable for the reader. [Footnote: See Arthur Symons, The Romantic Movement, p. 92 (from Myers, Life of Wordsworth).]
Such boasting is equally characteristic of our staid American poets, who shrink from the imputation that their orderly lives are the result of temperamental incapacity for unrestraint. [Footnote: Thus Whittier, in My Namesake, says of himself,
Few guessed beneath his aspect grave
What passions strove in chains.
Also Bayard Taylor retorts to those who taunt him with lack of passion,
But you are blind, and to the blind
The touch of ice and fire is one.
The same defense is made by Richard W. Gilder in lines entitled Our Elder Poets.] In differing mode, Swinburne’s poetry is perhaps an expression of the same attitude. The ultra-erotic verse of that poet somehow suggests a wild hullabaloo raised to divert our attention from the fact that he was constitutionally incapable of experiencing passion.
Early in the century, something approaching the Wordsworthian doctrine of emotion recollected in tranquillity was in vogue, as regards capacity for passion. The Byronic hero is one whose affections have burned themselves out, and who employs the last worthless years of his life writing them up. Childe Harold is
Grown aged in this world of woe,
In deeds, not years, piercing the depths of life,
So that no wonder waits him, nor below
Can love, or sorrow, fame, ambition, strife,
Cut to his heart again with the keen knife
Of silent, sharp endurance.
The very imitative hero of Praed’s The Troubadour, after disappointment in several successive amours, at the age of twenty-six dismisses passion forever. We are assured that
The joys that wound, the pains that bless,
Were all, were all departed,
And he was wise and passionless
And happy and cold-hearted.
The popularity of this sort of poet was, however, ephemeral. Of late years poets have shown nothing but contempt for their brothers who attempt to sing after their passion has died away. It seems likely, beside, that instead of giving an account of his genius, the depleted poet depicts his passionless state only as a ruse to gain the sympathy of his readers, reminding them how much greater he might have been if he had not wantonly wasted his emotions.
One is justified in asking why, on the other hand, the poet should not be one who, instead of spending his love on a finite mistress, should devote it all to poetry. The bard asks us to believe that love of poetry is as thrilling a passion as any earthly one. His usual emotions are portrayed in Alexander Smith’s Life Drama, where the hero agonizes for relief from his too ardent love:
O that my heart was quiet as a grave Asleep in moonlight! For, as a torrid sunset boils with gold Up to the zenith, fierce within my soul A passion burns from basement to the cope. Poesy, poesy! But one who imagines that this passion can exist in the soul wholly unrelated to any other, is confusing poetry with religion, or possibly with philosophy. The medieval saint was pure in proportion as he died to the life of the senses. This is likewise the state of the philosopher described in the Phaedo. But beauty, unlike wisdom and goodness, is not to be apprehended abstractly; ideal beauty is super-sensual, to be sure, but the way to vision of it is through the senses. Without doubt one occasionally finds asceticism preached to the poet in verse. One of our minor American poets declares,
The bard who yields to flesh his emotion
Knows naught of the frenzy divine.
[Footnote: Passion, by Elizabeth Cheney. But compare Keats’ protest
against the poet’s abstract love, in the fourth book of Endymion.]
But this is not the genuine poet’s point of view. In so far as he is a Platonist—and “all poets are more or less Platonists” [Footnote: H. B. Alexander, Poetry and the Individual, p. 46.]—the poet is led upward to the love of ideal beauty through its incarnations in the world of sense. Thus in one of the most Platonic of our poems, G. E. Woodberry’s Agathon, Eros says of the hero, who is the young poet of the Symposium,
A spirit of joy he is, to beauty vowed,
Made to be loved, and every sluggish sense
In him is amorous and passionate.
Whence danger is; therefore I seek him out
So with pure thought and care of things divine
To touch his soul that it partake the gods.
This does not imply that romantic love is the only avenue to ideal beauty. Rupert Brooke’s The Great Lover might dissipate such an idea, by its picture of childlike and omnivorous taste for sensuousbeauty.
These I have loved,
White plates and cups, clean gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamplight; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many tasting food;
Rainbows, and the blue bitter smoke of wood.
And so on he takes us, apparently at random, through the whole range of his sense impressions. But the main difficulty with having no more than such scattered and promiscuous impressionability is that it is likely to result in poetry that is a mere confusion of color without design, unless the poet is subject to the unifying influence of a great passion, which, far from destroying perspective, as was hinted previously, affords a fixed standard by which to gauge the relative values of other impressions. Of course the exceptionally idealistic poet, who is conscious of a religious ideal, can say with Milton, “I am wont day and night to seek the idea of beauty through all the forms and faces of things (for many are the shapes of things divine) and to follow it leading me on with certain assured traces.” [Footnote: Prose Works, Vol. I, Letter VII, Symmons ed.] To him there is no need of the unifying influence of romantic love. In his case the mission of a strong passion is rather to humanize the ideal, lest it become purely philosophical (as that of G. E. Woodberry is in danger of doing) or purely ethical, as is the case of our New England poets. On the other hand, to the poet who denies the ideal element in life altogether, the unifying influence of love is indispensable. Such deeply tragic poetry as that of James Thomson, B. V., for instance, which asserts Macbeth’s conclusion that life is “a tale told by an idiot,” is saved from utter chaos sufficiently to keep its poetical character, only because the memory of his dead love gives Thomson a conception of eternal love and beauty by which to gauge his hopeless despair.
In addition, our poets are wont to agree with their father Spenser that the beauty of a beloved person is not to be placed in the same class as the beauty of the world of nature. Spenser argues that the spiritual beauty of a lady, rather than her outward appearance, causes her lover’s perturbation. He inquires:
Can proportion of the outward part
Move such affection in the inward mind
That it can rob both sense and reason blind?
Why do not then the blossoms of the field,
Which are arrayed with much more orient hue
And to the sense most daintie odors yield,
Work like impression in the looker’s view?
[Footnote: An Hymne in Honour of Beautie.]
Modern theorists, who would no doubt despise the quaintly idealistic mode of Spenser’s expression, yet express much the same view in asserting that romantic excitement is a stimulus which keys all the senses to a higher pitch, thus dispersing one’s amorousness over all creation. The love celebrated in Brooke’s The Great Lover, they declare, cannot be compared with that of his more conventional love poems, simply because the one love is the cause of the other. Such heightened sensuous impressionability is celebrated in much of our most beautiful love poetry of to-day, notably in Sara Teasdale’s.
It may be that this intensity of perception engendered by love is its most poetical effect. Much verse pictures the poet as a flamelike spirit kindled by love to a preternaturally vivid apprehension of life for an instant, before love dies away, leaving him ashes. Again and again the analogy is pointed out between Shelley’s spirit and the leaping flames that consumed his body. Josephine Preston Peabody’s interpretation of Marlowe is of the same sort. In the drama of which Marlowe is the title-character, his fellow-dramatist, Lodge, is much worried when he learns of Marlowe’s mad passion for a woman of the court.
Thou art a glorious madman,
Born to consume thyself anon in ashes,
And rise again to immortality.
Oh, if she cease to smile, as thy looks say,
What if? I shall have drained my splendor down
To the last flaming drop! Then take me, darkness,
And mirk and mire and black oblivion,
Despairs that raven where no camp-fire is,
Like the wild beasts. I shall be even blest
To be so damned.
Most often this conception of love’s flamelike lightening of life for the poet is applied to Sappho. Many modern English poets picture her living “with the swift singing strength of fire.” [Footnote: See Southey, Sappho; Mary Robinson (1758-1800), Sappho and Phaon; Philip Moren Freneau, Monument of Phaon; James Gates Percival, Sappho; Charles Kingsley, Sappho; Lord Houghton, A Dream of Sappho; Swinburne, On the Cliffs, Anactoria, Sapphics; Cale Young Rice, Sappho’s Death Song; Sara Teasdale, Sappho; Percy Mackaye, Sappho and Phaon; Zoë Akins, Sappho to a Swallow on the Ground; James B. Kenyon, Phaon Concerning Sappho, Sappho (1920); William Alexander Percy, Sappho in Levkos (1920).] Swinburne, in On the Cliffs, claims this as the essential attribute of genius, when he cries to her for sympathy,
For all my days as all thy days from birth
My heart as thy heart was in me as thee
Fire, and not all the fountains of the sea
Have waves enough to quench it; nor on earth
Is fuel enough to feed,
While day sows night, and night sows day for seed.
This intensity of perception is largely the result, or the cause, of the poet’s unusually sensitive consciousness of the ephemeralness of love. The notion of permanence often seems to rob love of all its poetical quality. The dark despair engendered by a sense of its transience is needed as a foil to the fiery splendors of passion. Thus Rupert Brooke, in the sonnet, Mutability, dismisses the Platonic idea of eternal love and beauty, declaring,
Dear, we know only that we sigh, kiss, smile;
Each kiss lasts but the kissing; and grief goes over;
Love has no habitation but the heart:
Poor straws! on the dark flood we catch awhile,
Cling, and are borne into the night apart,
The laugh dies with the lips, “Love” with the lover.
Sappho is represented as especially aware of this aspect of her love.
Her frenzies in Anactoria, where, if our hypothesis is correct,
Swinburne must have been terribly concerned over his natural coldness,
arise from rebellion at the brevity of love. Sappho cries,
What had all we done
That we should live and loathe the sterile sun,
And with the moon wax paler as she wanes,
And pulse by pulse feel time grow through our veins?
Poetry, we are to believe, arises from the yearning to render eternal the fleeting moment of passion. Sappho’s poetry is, as Swinburne says, [Footnote: In On the Cliffs.] “life everlasting of eternal fire.” In Mackaye’s Sappho and Phaon, she exults in her power to immortalize her passion, contrasting herself with her mother, the sea:
Her ways are birth, fecundity and death,
But mine are beauty and immortal love.
Therefore I will be tyrant of myself—
Mine own law will I be! And I will make
Creatures of mind and melody, whose forms
Are wrought of loveliness without decay,
And wild desire without satiety,
And joy and aspiration without death.
And on the wings of these shall I, I, Sappho!
Still soar and sing above these cliffs of Lesbos,
Even when ten thousand blooms of men and maidens
Are fallen and withered.
To one who craves an absolute aesthetic standard, it is satisfactory to note how nearly unanimous our poets are in their portrayal of Sappho. [Footnote: No doubt they are influenced by the glimpse of her given in Longinus, On the Sublime.] This is the more remarkable, since our enormous ignorance of her life and poetry would give almost free scope to inventive faculty. It is significant that none of our writers have been attracted to the picture Welcker gives of her as the respectable matronly head of a girl’s seminary. Instead, she is invariably shown as mad with an insatiable yearning, tortured by the conviction that her love can never be satisfied. Charles Kingsley, describing her temperament,
Night and day
A mighty hunger yearned within her heart,
And all her veins ran fever,
conceives of her much as does Swinburne, who calls her,
Love’s priestess, mad with pain and joy of song,
Song’s priestess, mad with pain and joy of love.
[Footnote: On the Cliffs.]
It is in this insatiability that Swinburne finds the secret of her genius, as opposed to the meager desires of ordinary folk. Expressing her conception of God, he makes Sappho assert,
But having made me, me he shall not slay:
Nor slay nor satiate, like those herds of his,
Who laugh and love a little, and their kiss
It is, no doubt, an inarticulate conviction that she is “imprisoned in the body as in an oyster shell,” [Footnote: Plato, Phaedrus, § 250.] while the force that is wooing her is outside the boundary of the senses, that accounts for Sappho’s agonies of despair. In Sara Teasdale’s Sappho she describes herself,
Who would run at dusk
Along the surges creeping up the shore
When tides come in to ease the hungry beach,
And running, running till the night was black,
Would fall forspent upon the chilly sand,
And quiver with the winds from off the sea.
Ah! quietly the shingle waits the tides
Whose waves are stinging kisses, but to me
Love brought no peace, nor darkness any rest.
[Footnote: In the end, Sara Teasdale does show her winning content,
in the love of her baby daughter, but it is significant that this
destroys her lyric gift. She assures Aphrodite,
If I sing no more
To thee, God’s daughter, powerful as God,
It is that thou hast made my life too sweet
To hold the added sweetness of a song.
* * * * *
I taught the world thy music; now alone
I sing for her who falls asleep to hear.]
Swinburne characteristically shows her literally tearing the flesh in her quest of the divinity that is reflected there. In Anactoria she tells the object of her infatuation:
I would my love could kill thee: I am satiated
With seeing thee alive, and fain would have thee dead.
* * * * *
I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,
Intense device and superflux of pain.
And after detailing with gusto the bloody ingenuities of her plan of torture, she states that her motive is,
To wring thy very spirit through the flesh.
The myth that Sappho’s agony resulted from an offense done to Aphrodite, is several times alluded to. In Sappho and Phaon she asserts her independence of Aphrodite’s good will, and in revenge the goddess turns Phaon’s affection away from Sappho, back to Thalassa, the mother of his children. Sappho’s infatuation for Phaon, the slave, seems a cruel jest of Aphrodite, who fills Sappho with a wholly blind and unreasoning passion. In all three of Swinburne’s Lesbian poems, Aphrodite’s anger is mentioned. This is the sole theme of Sapphics, in which poem the goddess, displeased by Sappho’s preferment of love poetry to the actual delights of love, yet tried to win Sappho back to her:
Called to her, saying “Turn to me, O my Sappho,”
Yet she turned her face from the Loves, she saw not
Tears or laughter darken immortal eyelids….
Only saw the beautiful lips and fingers,
Full of songs and kisses and little whispers,
Full of music; only beheld among them
Soar as a bird soars
Newly fledged, her visible song, a marvel
Made of perfect sound and exceeding passion,
Sweetly shapen, terrible, full of thunders,
Clothed with the wind’s wings.
It seems likely that this myth of Aphrodite’s anger is an allegory indicating the tragic character of all poetic love, in that, while incarcerated in the body, the singer strives to break through the limits of the flesh and to grasp ideality. The issue is made clear in Mackaye’s drama. There Sappho’s rival is Thalassa, Phaon’s slave-mate, who conceives as love’s only culmination the bearing of children. Sappho, in her superiority, points out that mere perpetuation of physical life is a meaningless circle, unless it leads to some higher satisfaction. But in the end the figure of “the eternal mother,” as typified by Thalassa, is more powerful than is Sappho, in the struggle for Phaon’s love. Thus Aphrodite asserts her unwillingness to have love refined into a merely spiritual conception.
Often the greatest poets, as Sappho herself, are represented as having no more than a blind and instinctive apprehension of the supersensual beauty which is shining through the flesh, and which is the real object of desire. But thus much ideality must be characteristic of love, it seems obvious, before it can be spiritually creative. Unless there is some sense of a universal force, taking the shape of the individual loved one, there can be nothing suggestive in love. Instead of waking the lover to the beauty in all of life, as we have said, it would, as the non-lover has asserted, blind him to all but the immediate object of his pursuit. Then, the goal being reached, there would be no reason for the poet’s not achieving complete satisfaction in love, for there would be nothing in it to suggest any delight that he does not possess. Therefore, having all his desire, the lover would be lethargic, with no impulse to express himself in song. Probably something of this sort is the meaning of the Tannhauser legend, as versified both by Owen Meredith and Emma Lazarus, showing the poet robbed of his gift when he comes under the power of the Paphian Venus. Such likewise is probably the meaning of Oscar Wilde’s sonnet, Hélas, quoted above.
While we thus lightly dismiss sensual love as unpoetical, we must remember that Burns, in some of his accounts of inspiration, ascribes quite as powerful and as unidealistic an effect to the kisses of the barmaids, as to the liquor they dispense. But this is mere bravado, as much of his other verse shows. Byron’s case, also, is a doubtful one. The element of discontent is all that elevates his amours above the “swinish trough,” which Alfred Austin asserts them to be. [Footnote: In Off Mesolonghi.] Yet, such as his idealism is, it constitutes the strength and weakness of his poetical gift. Landor well says, [Footnote: In Lines To a Lady.]
Although by fits so dense a cloud of smoke
Puffs from his sappy and ill-seasoned oak,
Yet, as the spirit of the dream draws near,
Remembered loves make Byron’s self sincere.
The puny heart within him swells to view,
The man grows loftier and the poet too.
Ideal love is most likely to become articulate in the sonnet sequence. The Platonic theory of love and beauty, ubiquitous in renaissance sonnets, is less pretentiously but no less sincerely present in the finest sonnets of the last century. The sense that the beauty of his beloved is that of all other fair forms, the motive of Shakespeare’s
Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts
Which I by lacking have supposed dead,
is likewise the motive of Rossetti’s Heart’s Compass,
Sometimes thou seemest not as thyself alone,
But as the meaning of all things that are;
A breathless wonder, shadowing forth afar
Some heavenly solstice, hushed and halcyon,
Whose unstirred lips are music’s visible tone;
Whose eyes the sungates of the soul unbar,
Being of its furthest fires oracular,
The evident heart of all life sown and mown.
Thus also Mrs. Browning says of her earlier ideal loves,
Their shining fronts,
Their songs, their splendors (better, yet the same,
As river water hallowed into founts)
Met in thee.
[Footnote: Sonnets of the Portuguese, XXVI.]
Reflection of this sort almost inevitably leads the poet to the conviction that his real love is eternal beauty. Such is the progress of Rossetti’s thought in Heart’s Hope:
Lady, I fain would tell how evermore
Thy soul I know not from thy body nor
Thee from myself, neither our love from God.
The whole of Diotima’s theory of the ascent to ideal beauty is here implicit in three lines. In the same spirit Christina Rossetti identifies her lover with her Christian faith:
Yea, as I apprehend it, love is such
I cannot love you if I love not Him,
I cannot love Him if I love not you.
[Footnote: Monna Innominata, VI. See also Robert Bridges, The of
Love (a sonnet sequence).]
It is obvious that, from the standpoint of the beloved at least, there is danger in this identification of all beauties as manifestations of the ideal. It is unpropitious to lifelong affection for one person. As a matter of fact, though the English taste for decorous fidelity has affected some poets, on the whole they have not hesitated to picture their race as fickle. Plato’s account of the second step in the ascent of the lover, “Soon he will himself perceive that the beauty of one form is truly related to the beauty of another; and then if beauty in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is one and the same,” [Footnote: Symposium, Jowett translation, §210.] is made by Shelley the justification of his shifting enthusiasms, which the world so harshly censured. In Epipsychidion Shelley declares,
I never was attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion….
True love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright
Gazing on many truths….
Narrow the heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity.
These last lines suggest, what many poets have asserted, that the goddess of beauty is apt to change her habitation from one clay to another, and that the poet who clings to the fair form after she has departed, is nauseated by the dead bones which he clasps. [Footnote: See Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Well Beloved.] This theme Rupert Brooke is constantly harping upon, notably in Dead Men’s Love, which begins,
There was a damned successful poet,
There was a woman like the Sun.
And they were dead. They did not know it.
They did not know his hymns
Were silence; and her limbs
That had served love so well,
Dust, and a filthy smell.
The feeling that Aphrodite is leading them a merry chase through manyforms is characteristic of our ultra-modern poets, who anticipate at least one new love affair a year. Most elegantly Ezra Pound expresses his feeling that it is time to move on to a fresh inspiration:
As a bathtub lined with white porcelain
When the hot water gives out or goes tepid,—
So is the slow cooling of our chivalrous passion,
My much praised, but not altogether satisfactory lady.
As each beautiful form is to be conceived of as reflecting eternal beauty from a slightly different angle, the poet may claim that flitting affection is necessary to one who would gain as complete as possible vision of ideality. Not only so, but this glimpsing of beauty through first one mistress, then another, often seems to perform the function of the mixed metaphor in freeing the soul from bondage to the sensual. This is the interpretation of Sappho’s fickleness most popular with our writers, who give her the consciousness that Aphrodite, not flesh and blood, is the object of her quest. In her case, unlike that of the ordinary lover, the new passion does not involve the repudiation or belittling of the one before. In Swinburne’s Anactoria Sappho compares her sensations
Last year when I loved Atthis, and this year
When I love thee.
In Mackaye’s Sappho and Phaon, when Alcaeus pleads for the love of the poetess, she asserts of herself,
I doubt if ever she saw form of man
Or maiden either whom, being beautiful,
She hath not loved.
When Alcaeus protests, “But not with passion!” she rejoins,
That breathes to her is passion, love itself
The inevitability of fickleness arising from her idealism, which fills her with insuperable discontent, is voiced most clearly by the nineteenth century Sappho through the lips of Sara Teasdale, in lines wherein she dismisses those who gossip about her:
How should they know that Sappho lived and died
Faithful to love, not faithful to the lover,
Never transfused and lost in what she loved,
Never so wholly loving nor at peace.
I asked for something greater than I found,
And every time that love has made me weep
I have rejoiced that love could be so strong;
For I have stood apart and watched my soul
Caught in a gust of passion as a bird
With baffled wings against the dusty whirlwind
Struggles and frees itself to find the sky.
She continues, apostrophizing beauty,
In many guises didst thou come to me;
I saw thee by the maidens when they danced,
Phaon allured me with a look of thine,
In Anactoria I knew thy grace.
I looked at Cercolas and saw thine eyes,
But never wholly, soul and body mine
Didst thou bid any love me as I loved.
The last two lines suggest another reason for the fickleness, as well as for the insatiability of the poet’s love. If the poet’s genius consists of his peculiar capacity for love, then in proportion as he outsoars the rest of humanity he will be saddened, if not disillusioned, by the half-hearted return of his love. Mrs. Browning characterizes her passion:
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal grace.
It is clear that a lesser soul could not possibly give an adequate response to such affection. Perhaps it is one of the strongest evidences that Browning is a genuine philosopher, and not a prestidigitator of philosophy in rhyme, that Mrs. Browning’s love poetry does not conclude with the note either of tragic insatiability or of disillusionment. [Footnote: The tragedy of incapacity to return one’s poet-lover’s passion is the theme of Alice Meynell’s The Poet and his Wife. On the same theme are the following: Amelia Josephine Burr, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (1914); C. J. Druce, The Dark Lady to Shakespeare (1919); Karle Wilson Baker, Keats and Fanny Brawne (1919); James B. Kenyon, Phaon concerning Sappho (1920).]
Since the poet’s soul is more beautiful than the souls of other men, it follows that he cannot love at all except, in a sense, by virtue of the fact that he is easily deceived. Here is another explanation of the transience of his affections,—in his horrified recoil from an unworthy object that he has idealized. This blindness to sensuality is accounted for by Plato in the figure, “The lover is his mirror in whom he is beholding himself, but he is not aware of this.” [Footnote: Phædrus, 255.] [Footnote: Browning shows the poet, with his eyes open, loving an unworthy form, in Time’s Revenges.] This is the figure used in Sara Teasdale’s little poem, The Star, which says to the pool,
O wondrous deep,
I love you, I give you my light to keep.
Oh, more profound than the moving sea,
That never has shown myself to me.
* * * * *
But out of the woods as night grew cool
A brown pig came to the little pool;
It grunted and splashed and waded in
And the deepest place but reached its chin.
The tragedy in such love is the theme of Alfred Noyes’ poem on Marlowe, At the Sign of the Golden Shoe. The dramatist comes to London as a young boy, full of high visions and faith in human nature. His innocence makes him easy prey of a notorious woman:
In her treacherous eyes,
As in dark pools the mirrored stars will gleam,
Here did he see his own eternal skies.
But, since his love is wholly spiritual, it dies on the instant of her revelation of her character:
Clasped in the bitter grave of that sweet clay,
Wedded and one with it, he moaned.
* * * * *
Yet, ere he went, he strove once more to trace
Deep in her eyes, the loveliness he knew,
Then—spat his hatred in her smiling face.
It is probably an instance of the poet’s blindness to the sensual, that he is often represented as having a peculiar sympathy with the fallen woman. He feels that all beauty in this world is forced to enter into forms unworthy of it, and he finds the attractiveness of the courtesan only an extreme instance of this. Joaquin Miller’s The Ideal and the Real is an allegory in which the poet, following ideal beauty into this world, finds her in such a form. The tradition of the poet idealizing the outcast, which dates back at least to Rossetti’s Jenny, is still alive, as witness John D. Neihardt’s recent poem, A Vision of Woman. [Footnote: See also Kirke White, The Prostitute; Whitman, To a Common Prostitute; Joaquin Miller, A Dove of St. Mark; and Olive Dargan, A Magdalen to Her Poet.]
To return to the question of the poet’s fickleness, a very ingenious denial of it is found in the argument that, as his poetical love is purely ideal, he can indulge in a natural love that in no way interferes with it. A favorite view of the 1890’s is in Ernest Dowson’s Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonæ sub Regno Cynaræ:
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion;
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
The poet sometimes regards it as a proof of the supersensual nature of his passion that he is, willing to marry another woman. The hero of May Sinclair’s novel, The Divine Fire, who is irresistibly impelled to propose to a girl, even while he trembles at the sacrilege of her touching a book belonging to his soul’s mistress, is only a reductio ad absurdum of a rather popular theory. All narratives of this sort can probably be traced back to Dante’s autobiography, as given in the Vita Nuova. We have two poetic dramas dealing with Dante’s love, by G. L. Raymond, [Footnote: Dante] and by Sara King Wiley. [Footnote: Dante and Beatrice] Both these writers, however, show a tendency to slur over Dante’s affection for Gemma. Raymond represents their marriage as the result solely of Dante’s compromising her by apparent attention, in order to avoid the appearance of insulting Beatrice with too close regard. Sara King Wiley, on the other hand, stresses the other aspect of Dante’s feeling for Gemma, his gratitude for her pity at the time of Beatrice’s death. Of course both dramatists are bound by historical considerations to make the outcome of their plays tragical, but practically all other expositions of the poet’s double affections are likewise tragic. Cale Young Rice chooses another famous Renaissance lover for the hero of A Night in Avignon, a play with this theme. Here Petrarch, in a fit of impatience with his long loyalty to a hopeless love for Laura, turns to a light woman for consolation. According to the accepted mode, he refuses to tolerate Laura’s name on the lips of his fancy. Laura, who has chosen this inconvenient moment to become convinced of the purity of Petrarch’s devotion to her, comes to his home to offer her heart, but, discovering the other woman’s presence there, she fails utterly to comprehend the subtle compliment to her involved, and leaves Petrarch in an agony of contrition.
Marlowe, in Josephine Preston Peabody’s drama, distributes his admiration more equally between his two loves. One stimulates the dramatist in him, by giving him an insatiable thirst for this world; the other elevates the poet, by lifting his thoughts to eternal beauty. When he is charged with being in love with the Canterbury maiden who is the object of his reverence, the “Little Quietude,” as he calls her, he, comparing her to the Evening Star, contrasts her with the object of his burning passion, who seems to him the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He explains,
I serve a lady so imperial fair,
June paled when she was born. Indeed no star,
No dream, no distance, but a very woman,
Wise with the argent wisdom of the snake;
Fair nurtured with that old forbidden fruit
That thou hast heard of …
… I would eat, and have all human joy,
And know,—and know.
But, for the Evening Star, I have it there.
I would not have it nearer. Is that love
As thou dost understand? Yet is it mine
As I would have it: to look down on me,
Not loving and not cruel; to be bright,
Out of my reach; to lighten me the dark
When I lift eyes to it, and in the day
To be forgotten. But of all things, far,
Far off beyond me, otherwise no star.
Marlowe’s closing words bring us to another important question, i. e., the stage of love at which it is most inspiring. This is the subject of much difference of opinion. Mrs. Browning might well inquire, in one of her love sonnets,
How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?
A hope, to sing by gladly? or a fine
Sad memory with thy songs to interfuse?
A shade, in which to sing, of palm or pine?
A grave, on which to rest from singing? Choose.
[Footnote: Sonnets from the Portuguese, XVII.]
Each of these situations has been celebrated as begetting the poet’s
To follow the process of elimination, we may first dispose of the married state as least likely to be spiritually creative. It is true that we find a number of poems addressed by poets to their wives. But these are more likely to be the contented purring of one who writes by a cozy fireside, than the passionate cadence of one whose genius has been fanned to flame. One finds but a single champion of the married state considered abstractly. This is Alfred Austin, in whose poem, The Poet and the Muse, his genius explains to the newly betrothed poet:
How should you, poet, hope to sing?
The lute of love hath a single string.
Its note is sweet as the coo of the dove,
But ’tis only one note, and the note is love.
But when once you have paired and built your nest,
And can brood thereon with a settled breast,
You will sing once more, and your voice will stir
All hearts with the sweetness gained from her.
And perhaps even Alfred Austin’s vote is canceled by his inconsistent statement in his poem on Petrarch, At Vaucluse,
Let this to lowlier bards atone,
Whose unknown Laura is their own,
Possessing and possessed:
Of whom if sooth they do not sing,
‘Tis that near her they fold their wing
To drop into her nest.
Let us not forget Shelley’s expression of his need for his wife:
Ah, Mary dear, come to me soon;
I am not well when thou art far;
As twilight to the sphered moon,
As sunset to the evening star,
Thou, beloved, art to me.
[Footnote: To Mary.]
Perhaps it is unworthy quibbling to object that the figure here suggests too strongly Shelley’s consciousness of the merely atmospheric function of Mary, in enhancing his own personality, as contrasted with the radiant divinity of Emilia Viviani, to whom he ascribes his creativeness. [Footnote: Compare Wordsworth, She Was a Phantom of Delight, Dearer Far than Life; Tennyson, Dedication of Enoch Arden.]
It is customary for our bards gallantly to explain that the completeness of their domestic happiness leaves them no lurking discontent to spur them onto verse writing. This is the conclusion of the happily wedded heroes of Bayard Taylor’s A Poet’s Journal, and of Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House; likewise of the poet in J. G. Holland’s Kathrina, who excuses his waning inspiration after his marriage:
She, being all my world, had left no room
For other occupation than my love.
… I had grown enervate
In the warm atmosphere which I had breathed.
Taken as a whole, the evidence is decidedly in favor of the remote love, prevented in some way from reaching its culmination. To requote Alfred Noyes, the poet knows that ideal love must be
Far off, beyond me, otherwise no star.
In Sister Songs Francis Thompson asserts that such remoteness is essential to his genius:
I deem well why life unshared
Was ordained me of yore.
In pairing time, we know, the bird
Kindles to its deepmost splendour,
And the tender
Voice is tenderest in its throat.
Were its love, forever by it,
Never nigh it,
It might keep a vernal note,
The crocean and amethystine
In their pristine
Lustre linger on its coat.
[Footnote: Possibly this is characteristic only of the male singer.
Christina Rossetti expresses the opposite attitude in Monna Innominata
XIV, mourning for
The silence of a heart that sang its songs
When youth and beauty made a summer morn,
Silence of love that cannot sing again.]
Byron, in the Lament of Tasso, causes that famous lover likewise
to maintain that distance is necessary to idealization. He sighs,
Successful love may sate itself away.
The wretched are the faithful; ’tis their fate
To have all feeling save the one decay,
And every passion into one dilate,
As rapid rivers into ocean pour.
But ours is bottomless and hath no shore.
The manner of achieving this necessary remoteness is a nice problem. Of course the poet may choose it, with open eyes, as the Marlowe of Miss Peabody’s imagination does, or as the minstrel in Hewlitt’s Cormac, Son of Ogmond. The long engagements of Rossetti and Tennyson are often quoted as exemplifying this idiosyncrasy of poets. But there is something decidedly awkward in such a situation, inasmuch as it is not till love becomes so intense as to eclipse the poet’s pride and joy in poetry that it becomes effective as a muse. [Footnote: See Mrs. Browning, Sonnet VII.
And this! this lute and song, loved yesterday,
Are only dear, the singing angels know
Because thy name moves right in what they say.]
The minor poet, to be sure, is often discovered solicitously feeling his pulse to gauge the effect of love on his rhymes, but one does not feel that his verse gains by it. Therefore, an external obstacle is usually made to intervene.
As often as not, this obstacle is the indifference of the beloved. One finds rejected poets by the dozens, mourning in the verse of our period. The sweetheart’s reasons are manifold; her suitor’s inferior station and poverty being favorites. But one wonders if the primary reason may not be the quality of the love offered by the poet, whose extreme humility and idealization are likely to engender pride and contempt in the lady, she being unaware that it is the reflection of his own soul that the poet is worshipping in her. One can feel some sympathy with the lady in Thomas Hardy’s I Rose Up as My Custom Is, who, when her lover’s ghost discovers her beside a snoring spouse, confesses that she is content with her lot:
He makes no quest into my thoughts,
But a poet wants to know
What one has felt from earliest days,
Why one thought not in other ways,
And one’s loves of long ago.
It may be, too, that an instinct for protection has something to do with the lady’s rejection, for a recent poet has openly proclaimed the effect of attaining, in successful love, one step toward absolute beauty:
O beauty, as thy heart o’erflows
In tender yielding unto me,
A vast desire awakes and grows
Unto forgetfulness of thee.
[Footnote: “A. E.,” The Fountain of Shadowy Beauty.]
Rejection is apt to prove an obstacle of double worth to the poet, since it not only removes him to a distance where his lady’s human frailties are less visible, so that the divine light shining through her seems less impeded, but it also fires him with a very human ambition to prove his transcendent worth and thus “get even” with his unappreciative beloved. [Footnote: See Joaquin Miller, Ina; G. L. Raymond, “Loving,” from A Life in Song; Alexander Smith, A Life Drama.
Richard Realf in Advice Gratis satirically depicts the lady’s altruism in rejecting her lover:
It would strike fresh heat in your poet’s verse
If you dropped some aloes into his wine,
They write supremely under a curse.]
There is danger, of course, that the disillusionment produced by the revelation of low ideals which the lady makes in her refusal will counterbalance these good effects. Still, though the poet is so egotistical toward all the world beside, in his attitude toward his lady the humility which Emerson expresses in The Sphinx is not without parallel in verse. Many singers follow him in his belief that the only worthy love is that for a being so superior that a return of love is impossible. [Footnote: See The Sphinx—
Have I a lover who is noble and free?
I would he were nobler than to love me.
See also Walt Whitman, Sometimes with One I Love, and Mrs. Browning,
“I never thought that anyone whom I could love would stoop to love
me—the two things seemed clearly incompatible.” Letter to Robert
Browning, December 24, 1845.]
To poets who do not subscribe to Emerson’s belief in one-sided attachments, Alexander Smith’s A Life Drama is a treasury of suggestions as to devices by which the poet’s lady may be kept at sufficient distance to be useful. With the aid of intercalations Smith exhibits the poet removed from his lady by scornful rejection, by parental restraint, by an unhappy marriage, by self-reproach, and by death. All these devices have been popular in our poetry.
The lady’s marriage is seldom felt to be an insuperable barrier to love, though it is effective in removing her to a suitable distance for idealization. The poet’s worship is so supersensual as to be inoffensive. To confine ourselves to poetic dramas treating historical poets,—Beatrice,[Footnote: G. L. Raymond’s and S. K. Wiley’s dramas, Dante, and Dante and Beatrice.] Laura, [Footnote: Cale Young Rice, A Night in Avignon.] Vittoria Colonna, [Footnote: Longfellow, Michael Angelo.] and Alison [Footnote: Peabody, Marlowe.] are all married to one man while inspiring another. A characteristic autobiographical love poem of this type, is that of Francis Thompson, who asserts the ideality of the poet’s affection in his reference to
This soul which on thy soul is laid,
As maid’s breast upon breast of maid.
[Footnote: See also Ad Amicam, Her Portrait, Manus Animon Pinxit.]
There is no other barrier that so elevates love as does death.
Translation of love into Platonic idealism is then almost inevitable.
Alexander Smith describes the change accomplished by the death of the
Two passions dwelt at once within his soul,
Like eve and sunset dwelling in one sky.
And as the sunset dies along the west,
Eve higher lifts her front of trembling stars
Till she is seated in the middle sky,
So gradual one passion slowly died
And from its death the other drew fresh life,
Until ’twas seated in the soul alone,
The dead was love, the living, poetry.
The mystic merging of Beatrice into ideal beauty is, of course, mentioned often in nineteenth century poetry, most sympathetically, perhaps, by Rossetti. [Footnote: See On the Vita Nuova of Dante; also Dante at Verona.] Much the same kind of translation is described in Vane’s Story, by James Thomson, B.V., which appears to be a sort of mystic autobiography.
The ascent in love for beauty, as Plato describes it, [Footnote: Symposium.] might be expected to mark at every step an increase of poetic power, as it leads one from the individual beauties of sense to absolute, supersensual beauty. But it is extremely doubtful if this increase in poetic power is achieved when our poets try to take the last step, and rely for their inspiration upon a lover’s passion for disembodied, purely ideal beauty. The lyric power of such love has, indeed, been celebrated by a recent poet. George Edward Woodberry, in his sonnet sequence, Ideal Passion, thus exalts his mistress, the abstract idea of beauty, above the loves of other poets:
Dante and Petrarch all unenvied go
From star to star, upward, all heavens above,
The grave forgot, forgot the human woe.
Though glorified, their love was human love,
One unto one; a greater love I know.
But very few of our poets have felt their genius burning at its brightest when they have eschewed the sensuous embodiment of their love.
Plato might point out that he intended his theory of progression in love as a description of the development of the philosopher, not of the poet, who, as a base imitator of sense, has not a pure enough soul to soar very high away from it. But our writers have been able partially to vindicate poets by pointing out that Dante was able to travel the whole way toward absolute beauty, and to sublimate his perceptions to supersensual fineness without losing their poetic tone. Nineteenth and twentieth century writers may modestly assert that it is the fault of their inadequacy to represent poetry, and not a fault in the poetic character as such, that accounts for the tameness of their most idealistic verse.
However this may be, one notes a tendency in much purely idealistic and philosophical love poetry to present us with a mere skeleton of abstraction. Part of this effect may be the reader’s fault, of course. Plato assures us that the harmonies of mathematics are more ravishing than the harmonies of music to the pure spirit, but many of us must take his word for it; in the same way it may be that when we fail to appreciate certain celebrations of ideal love it is because of our “muddy vesture of decay” which hinders our hearing its harmonies.
Within the last one hundred and fifty years three notable attempts, of widely varying success, have been made to write a purely philosophical love poem.[Footnote: Keats’ Endymion is not discussed here, though it seems to have much in common with the philosophy of the Symposium. See Sidney Colvin, John Keats, pp. 160ff.]
Bulwer Lytton’s Milton was, if one may believe the press notices, the most favorably received of his poems, but it is a signal example of aspiring verse that misses both the sensuous beauty of poetry, and the intellectual content of philosophy. Milton is portrayed as the life-long lover of an incarnation of beauty too attenuated to be human and too physical to be purely ideal. At first Milton devotes himself to this vision exclusively, but, hearing the call of his country in distress, he abandons her, and their love is not suffered to culminate till after death. Bulwer Lytton cites the Phædrus of Plato as the basis of his allegory, reminding us,
The Athenian guessed that when our souls descend
From some lost realm (sad aliens here to be),
Dim broken memories of the state before,
Form what we call our reason…
… Is not Love,
Of all those memories which to parent skies
Mount struggling back—(as to their source, above,
In upward showers, imprisoned founts arise:)
Oh, is not Love the strongest and the clearest?
Greater importance attaches to a recent treatment of the theme by George Edward Woodberry. His poem, Agathon, dealing with the young poet of Plato’s Symposium, is our most literal interpretation of Platonism. Agathon is sought out by the god of love, Eros, who is able to realize his divinity only through the perfection of man’s love of beauty. He chooses Agathon as the object of instruction because Agathon is a poet, one of those
Whose eyes were more divinely touched
In that long-memoried world whence souls set forth.
As the poem opens, Agathon is in the state of the favorite poet of nineteenth century imagination, loving, yet discontented with, the beauty of the senses. To Diotima, the wise woman of the Symposium, he expresses his unhappiness:
Still must I mourn
That every lovely thing escapes the heart
Even in the moment of its cherishing.
Eros appears and promises Agathon that if he will accept his love, he may find happiness in eternal beauty, and his poetical gift will be ennobled:
Eros I am, the wooer of men’s hearts.
Unclasp thy lips; yield me thy close embrace;
So shall thy thoughts once more to heaven climb,
Their music linger here, the joy of men.
Agathon resolves to cleave to him, but at this point Anteros, corresponding to Plato’s Venus Pandemos, enters into rivalry with Eros for Agathon’s love. He shows the poet a beautiful phantom, who describes the folly of one who devotes himself to spiritual love:
The waste desire be his, and sightless fate,
Him light shall not revisit; late he knows
The love that mates the heaven weds the grave.
Agathon starts to embrace her, but seeing in her face the inevitable decay of sensual beauty, he recoils, crying,
In its fiery womb I saw
The twisted serpent ringing woe obscene,
And far it lit the pitchy ways of hell.
In an agony of horror and contrition, he recalls Eros, who expounds to him how love, beginning with sensuous beauty, leads one to ideality:
Let not dejection on thy heart take hold
That nature hath in thee her sure effects,
And beauty wakes desire. Should Daphne’s eyes,
Leucothea’s arms, and clinging white caress,
The arch of Thetis’ brows, be made in vain?
But, he continues,
In fair things
There is another vigor, flowing forth
From heavenly fountains, the glad energy
That broke on chaos, and the outward rush
Of the eternal mind;…
… Hence the poet’s eye
That mortal sees, creates immortally
The hero more than men, not more than man,
The type prophetic.
Agathon, in an ecstasy of comprehension, chants the praises of love which Plato puts into his mouth in the Symposium. In conclusion, Urania sums up the mystery of love and genius:
For truth divine is life, not love,
Creative truth, and evermore
Fashions the object of desire
Through love that breathes the spirit’s fire.
We may fittingly conclude a discussion of the poet as lover with the Epipsychidion, not merely because it is the most idealistic of the interpretations of Platonic love given by nineteenth century poets, but because by virtue of the fact that it describes Shelley’s personal experience, it should be most valuable in revealing the attitude toward love of one possessing the purest of poetic gifts. [Footnote: Treatment of this theme is foreshadowed in Alastor.]
The prominence given to Shelley’s earthly loves in this poem has led J.
A. Symonds to deny that it is truly Platonic. He remarks,
While Shelley’s doctrine in Epipsychidion seems Platonic, it will not square with the Symposium…. When a man has formed a just conception of universal beauty, he looks back with a smile on those who find their soul’s sphere in the love of some mere mortal object. Tested by this standard, Shelley’s identification of Intellectual Beauty with so many daughters of earth, and his worshipping love of Emilia, is spurious Platonism.[Footnote: Shelley, p. 142.]
Perhaps this failure to break altogether with the physical is precisely the distinction between the love of the poet and the love of the philosopher with whom Plato is concerned. I do not believe that the Platonism of this poem is intrinsically spurious; the conception of Emilia seems to be intended simply as a poetic personification of abstract beauty, but it is undeniable that at times this vision does not mean abstract beauty to Shelley at all, but the actual Emilia Viviani. He has protested against this judgment, “The Epipsychidion is a mystery; as to real flesh and blood, you know that I do not deal with those articles.” The revulsion of feeling that turned him away from Emilia, however, taught him how much of his feeling for her had entered into the poem, so that, in June, 1822, Shelley wrote,
The Epipsychidion I cannot bear to look at. I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it, consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is perhaps eternal.
Shelley begins his spiritual autobiography with his early mystical intuition of the existence of spiritual beauty, which is to be the real object of his love throughout life. By Plato, of course, this love is made prenatal. Shelley says,
She met me, robed in such exceeding glory
That I beheld her not.
As this vision was totally disjoined from earthly objects, it won the soul away from all interest in life. Therefore Shelley says,
She met me, Stranger, upon life’s rough way
And lured me towards sweet death.
This early vision passed away, however,
Into the dreary cone of our life’s shade.
This line is evidently Shelley’s Platonic fashion of referring to the obscurity of this life as compared to the world of ideas. As the vision has embodied itself in this world, it is only through love of its concrete manifestations that the soul may regain it. When it is regained, it will not be, as in the beginning, a momentary intuition, but an abiding presence in the soul.
The first step toward this goal was a mistaken one. Shelley describes his marriage with Harriet as a yielding to the senses merely, in other words, as slavery to the Venus Pandemos. He describes this false vision,
Whose voice was venomed melody.
* * * * *
The breath of her false mouth was like sweet flowers,
Her touch was as electric poison.
Shelley was more successful in his second love, for Mary, whom he calls the “cold, chaste moon.” The danger of this stage in the ascent toward beauty is that one is likely to be content with the fragmentary glimpse of beauty gained through the loved one, and by losing sight of its other embodiments fail to aspire to more complete vision. So Shelley says of this period, “I was laid asleep, spirit and limb.” By a great effort, however, the next step was taken,—the agonizing one of breaking away from the bondage of this individual, in order that beauty in all its forms may appeal to one. Shelley writes,
What storms then shook the ocean of my sleep,
Blotting that moon, whose pale and waning lips
Then shrank as in the sickness of eclipse.
Finally, the dross of its earthly embodiments being burned away by this renunciation, ideal beauty is revealed to the poet, not merely in a flash of inspiration, as at the beginning of his quest, but as an abiding presence in the soul. At least this is the ideal, but, being a poet, Shelley cannot claim the complete merging with the ideal that the philosopher possesses. At the supersensual consummation of his love, Shelley sinks back, only half conceiving of it, and cries,
Woe is me!
The winged words on which my soul would pierce
Into the height of Love’s rare universe
Are chains of lead around its flight of fire;
I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire.