Making Poetic Love

Finding appropriate and effective language for courtship is no easy trick. Instance the failure of Christian in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac (1897). Christian is handsome and heroic, and Roxanne welcomes his love-making; but Christian is no Romeo, and the best the poor fellow can do in romancing her bores her to tears.  Christian is sincere, but his very earnestness cripples his speech. He feels too much to be able to invent the elaborate speech that could win her heart.

Here we face a conundrum. It is possible that a man would feel love so strongly that his tongue would falter; could it be that wit and inventiveness and love’s rapture are incompatible? Henry V, in wooing his princess Kate, says as much when he apologizes for lacking the grace of a French courtier:

And while thou liv’st, dear Kate, take a fellow of plain and uncoined constancy, for he perforce must do thee right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other places. For these fellows of infinite tongue that can rhyme themselves into ladies’ favors, they do always reason themselves out again. What! A speaker is but a prater; a rhyme is but a ballad.  A good leg will fall, a straight back will stoop, a black beard with turn white, a curled pate will grow bald, a fair face will wither, a full eye will wax hollow; but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or rather, the sun, and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly. (Henry V, V ii).

King Henry is, to be sure, one of those rhetoricians who make the case for his truthfulness by falsely claiming to be a poor speaker.  Still, Henry makes the time-honored argument that honest feeling and artful speech cannot be joined.

Cyrano seems to resolve this dilemma.  Unlike the ardent and inarticulate Christian, he is an artful man. He is master not only of sword-play but of the speeches of challenge and insult that rouse him to frenzy in his deadly duels. Just as De Bergerac can contain his anger in order to deploy his talent with the sword, he shows he can channel his ardent feelings of love into the appropriate artifice of the language of courtship. Cyrano speaks to Roxanne from behind two masks. She believes she is hearing the handsome and valiant young lover Christian.  Hearing them from the older and grotesquely unhandsome Cyrano would likely make his words less attractive. But the language of Cyrano’s love-making is itself ridiculously high-flown, an artificial mask behind which there is real feeling hiding amidst the tangled metaphors:


 Well, if that moment’s come for us–suppose it!

  What words would serve you?


  All, all, all, whatever

  That came to me, e’en as they came, I’d fling them

  In a wild cluster, not a careful bouquet.

  I love thee!  I am mad!  I love, I stifle!

  Thy name is in my heart as in a sheep-bell,

  And as I ever tremble, thinking of thee,

  Ever the bell shakes, ever thy name ringeth!

  All things of thine I mind, for I love all things;

  I know that last year on the twelfth of May-month,

  To walk abroad, one day you changed your hair-plaits!

  I am so used to take your hair for daylight

  That,–like as when the eye stares on the sun’s disk,

  One sees long after a red blot on all things–

  So, when I quit thy beams, my dazzled vision

  Sees upon all things a blonde stain imprinted.


ROXANE (agitated):

  Why, this is love indeed!. . .

(Act III, vii)

De Bergerac plays this perfectly. Roxane demands a display of words, a display Christian has failed at miserably.  Cyrano begins by claiming an ardor that would disorder his words into “a wild cluster” and mere exclamation.  But immediately he seems to gain control of the extravagant metaphors that belong to the art of love’s madness. She is a sheep-bell; she is the sun.  In both cases these figures are elaborately drawn, showing the speaker’s remarkable intelligence and graciousness.  The energy of his ardor is transmuted from witless exclamation to the extravagant web of gracious thought. The lover feels deeply, it would appear, and also commands these feelings in a brilliant construction, a “careful bouquet” he can lay adoringly at his beloved’s feet. Cyrano’s artfulness is particularly evident when he takes a worn image, the beloved figured as the sun of the lover’s existence (as in King Henry’s oration), and gives it a novel turn, the after-image left from gazing at too bright light that then appears in every other loved-tinged picture of the world. This move shows that the speaker has done more than reach for the lexicon of love speeches but has instead been inspired by her beauty and spirituality to become an inventive poet, creating something exceeding the conventions of art.

Wonderful as this scene and Cyrano’s speech is, there is something wrong here. Cyrano misrepresents Christian to Roxane; he is false to her.  Worse yet, Roxane appears simple-minded and cruel. She spurns Christian, quite ruthlessly, for his lack of command of love’s language and is carried into transports of love by language from a man she would otherwise spurn because of his ghastly appearance. Is Roxane really worth all that trouble simply because she is a good-looking blonde? Perhaps King Henry is correct after all in warning his princess that the masters of love’s palaver are not to be trusted, that those who can talk them into love can as easily talk them out of it again when the ever inventive and restless heart wanders.

It appears we have a problem!

The sonnet tradition has faced this issue from the beginning. Sir Philip Sidney’s (15541586) brilliant sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella, demonstrates this tension between feeling and the display of complex thought.  The created speaker in these sonnets, devoted as he claims to be to his Stella, is always also devoted to his own cleverness.  So much so that Stella herself often appears to be merely a convenient hook on which to hang his cleverness. A beloved could well be taken with the elaborateness of these protestations of devotion, but their artfulness should raise suspicions about the sincerity of the feelings insisted upon with such complexity:

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climbst the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case,
I read it in thy looks: thy languished grace,
To me that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, ev’n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

Astrophel and Stella (1580), Sonnet XXXI

Modern readers are apt to find this lover’s complaint tiresome, the wit impressive without being amusing – something like watching acrobats at the circus where we are amazed with the skill we see but not particularly entertained by it and all the time wondering at the application of all that ingenuity and effort to produce a high-wire act that has no usefulness.

The speaker addresses the moon and constructs a story that makes the moon express the poet’s own emotions. The moon climbs the skies with slow, silent steps and pale countenance. The poet is amazed to find that the celestial body shares his own dismay. Apparently, even in that heavenly realm, Cupid’s arrows produce their usual mayhem. We are asked to recognize also that only a man whose heart is sore would make these comparisons. The playful dimensions of analogy and character show the poet’s wit. A truly sorrowful person would lack this playfulness and the freedom of thought to ask whether the celestial realm, apparently beyond Eros, is still subject to Cupid’s erratic powers. In the second quatrain, the speaker notes that the moon has been the object of many anguished lovers’ thoughts.  The moon has seen and heard it all, and that is why the moon has his sad, wan look about him.  The moon in its “languished grace” shows his sympathy to all those lovers and by doing so comes to represent them. The speaker is aware that addressing the moon with his complaint of unsatisfied love, he is doing what many have done before him.  He participates in a convention, a “moon-June” cliché. Part of what is original here is the off-hand manner of expression. The exclamations, that interjected “What” especially, gives us a fellow who is not possessed by maudlin longings, no lyric lunatic, awash in his own morose thoughts or rhetorical pleadings. This speaker is too hip for that, more witty, less sincere, more intelligent about the game of love.

Not only that, but the speaker is angry and aggressive, in an elaborate way, towards his beloved. He asks the moon whether in the celestial realm as in his own terrestrial location lovers who are sincere and devoted are thought of as lacking intelligence, whether they are thought to be stupid. Are the beloved creatures there as haughty and dismissive as the lady he fancies? Do those beloved creatures enjoy being admired and loved but at the same time and quite perversely reject those who have, by Cupid’s nasty tricks, become devoted to them?  These are abusive questions directed as they are to Stella by Astrophel, her suitor. The last line is even more aggressive. The speaker charges his beloved with “ungratefulness” for not responding to his demonstrations and protestations of love for her.  Astrophel imputes corruptness to his world, where unresponsiveness in love, an unresponsiveness that feeds the pride of the beloved, is mislabeled as virtue. By this account, the traditions of modesty, including those embedded in Christian morality, are merely a mask for a twisted pleasure that turns natural joy of two into the pleasure of one heartless woman.

What sort of a courtship maneuver is this? The speaker presents himself as wittily disengaged from the feelings he describes and, worse yet, abusive towards his beloved. If his feelings of love seem spurious, are his feelings of anger sincere? We may be prone to believe that anger is always more realistic than love since one has an ulterior motive of pleasure in view while the other in its destructiveness expresses itself purely.  But in this case, the same case of witty playfulness serves also to describe the speaker’s abuse of his lady. The speaker is as playful in imputing the corruption of his beloved as he is in making the case for his sadness and dismay. His abuse is playful and teasing and witty.  These charges of “ungratefulness” are also conventional.  “The cruel lady” is as much a stock figure as the ardent lover telling his sad tale to the wan moon. So, if the speaker is kidding – both about his feelings of devotion and about the proud rejection of his love by his beloved – what is he up to? We can understand why Roxane would fall for the artful insincerity of Cyrano; at least he was trying very hard to appear sincere. In Sidney’s case, he seems insincere in every way.  Yet it does not seem that he wants her to turn from him, or that this is in some fashion a way of getting back at her and moving on. Sidney’s poem is as much a love proposal as is Christian’s inarticulate sincerity or Cyrano’s artful love-making.

When Christian attempts to express his ardent and sincere love for Roxane, he is stuck on the bald statement that he loves her:

CHRISTIAN (sits by her on the bench.  A silence):

  Oh!  I love you!

ROXANE (shutting her eyes):

  Ay, speak to me of love.


  I love thee!



  The theme!  But vary it.


  I. . .


  Vary it!


  I love you so!


  Oh! without doubt!–and then?. . .


  And then–I should be–oh!–so glad–so glad

  If you would love me!–Roxane, tell me so!

ROXANE (with a little grimace):

  I hoped for cream,–you give me gruel! 

Christian’s variation on his theme fails to take him far. Adding “so” lacks the creaminess Roxane needs in order to believe in his ardor. Faced with her objections, Christian subsequently makes his dangerous leap and denies that he loves her at all.  While Roxane’s interest is immediately peaked at this unexpected turn, Christian instantly falls back to earth, vowing that he does not love but entirely adores her. Roxane, entirely exasperated, exits slamming a door in his face.

Courtship requires more work than this and may ask the lover to utter words that capture the beloved’s attention by impersonating cruelty and aggression. While soft rhetorical fore-play may accomplish its task, sometimes rough play works better. It may seem surprising to attribute roughness of any sort to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (Robert called her his “Portuguese” because of her dark complexion), but Elizabeth’s poetry has more to it than its biographical interest. She is a master of the love sonnet and of the conventions of its unexpected turns; Elizabeth loves Robert “so” but her poetry finds a rough and humorous road to this revelation:

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
‘I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day’—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s speaker is a bookish lady.  She uses words like “nought” and “certes” and “mayst” as if she knows the English language only from old sonnets and not from speech such as men and women do use. Barrett Browning is known, too, for her idealism, the old kind of neo-Platonic chatter that plays off the collision of mutable bodies with immortal souls. Hers seems to be the sort of poetry that gives Victorianism and poetry both a bad name. So it is surprising to see how clever she can be in wrestling with the sincerity/artfulness issues.

Her speaker starts out in exasperation, scolding her lover for going about his courtship business all wrong. She appears to be that ungrateful and proud woman Sidney complains about. Far from being enraptured, she chastises her lover — it appears — even for being in love with her at all. The poem plays out a drama; her lover must have just finished telling her how much he adores her.  However, instead of melting into his dream of possession, she answers with reproof  — “If thou must love me” – as if he insists on something that holds little interest for her. He is unrelenting in his protestation; she on her part will respond to all this nonsense only if love is free from the blemishes of courtship and egotism. He has been wonderfully attentive and solicitous, but she needs more, “love for love’s sake only.”

The beloved and petulant lady itemizes the sort of light things that signal a frivolous understanding of the basis of love. She mocks either what he has been saying or, even worse, what she anticipates her lover might be about to say. Her offensive remarks mock him, even risk humiliating her affronted admirer. She imitates what men would know to say to their beloved, men who lack an understanding of what they are about and what women need to hear. This mistress is in no way coy but instead risks saying what she means. Her boldness raises the question whether she has any interest at all in this suitor or would just as soon do without him. Men say they find their beloved lovely, and gracious, and agreeable in speech and manner.  Like a good Platonic teacher, she notes that looks and manners may change or that his appreciation for them may wear out.  A passion constructed out of these flimsy materials may easily come apart. Her manner is didactic, a thoughtful and precise instructor, but in the midst of this challenging lecture, we learn that she is speaking to her beloved, and that she really does recognize that he experiences formidable emotions and a devotion to her that represents a challenge to her feelings, a challenge that has set off a struggle within her between her intellect and the sweet surprise at his ardor. Her petulant reproof is her own special way of telling him, “oh yes.” Her exasperation keeps her from breaking down in tears of joy and flying away from the earth.

He is no mere pleasant suitor. He comforted her when she was in despair of love; he cheered her and, in deepest intimacy, wiped away her tears. This act moved her, and it is all she can do to maintain her pose of reproof and cool instruction. Her riddling masks her gratitude and affection; it says what a woman unused to feeling and lacking the proper language of love would struggle to say. In her happiness, she constructs an imaginary narrative in which her lover mistakes pity for love and then by loving removes the suffering that fed his pity, which would in turn cause him to lose interest in her. In her play-acting, she has moved from cool and exasperated to humble and adoring and full of gratitude for his comfort. It is a strange way to say “I love you so,” but Barrett Browning has found another way to come at the problem of the language of love.  In this case, she impersonates the haughty beloved in order to announce her surrender to love. She caps her argument with a common enough Platonism, that in its pure form, love is beyond time and mutability.  However, the force of her capitulation has all the more force because she masks her love as resistance and rebellion.

Having looked at a male lover in Sir Philip Sidney and then a female beloved in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, our third exhibit in this exploration of love’s proper language will be a woman poet assuming the persona of an aggressive male courtier. Edna St. Vincent Millay, in life and art, enjoyed swimming between the gender lanes and, though not quite Tiresias in having actually lived in both forms, she acquires unusual insights into the codes of sexuality.

OH, THINK not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger’s rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you–think not but I would!–
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.

Millay’s imagined lover is no stammering Christian.  He begins by announcing what no lover ought ever to say, that he is unfaithful by nature to any vow, worse yet, that he is faithful only to love’s self, by which he would seem to mean not what Elizabeth Browning had in mind, love in its true purity, but faithful to being in love, to Aphrodite, the most treacherous of all the gods. The bold remark is absurd in itself. Don Giovanni may boast of his wayward amours, but not to the woman he is wooing at the moment. Were he really the rascal he claims to be, Millay’s boastful renegade would not be admitting to his unfaithfulness but asserting his trustworthiness instead. The wooer knows his business.  He opens with a shocker and behind that a riddle that urges the attention of his beloved (or momentarily beloved). Where Cyrano launches into his idealisms and bold figures, this lover plays his game by feigning a witty brashness, one that assumes the intelligence of sophistication of the woman he pursues. Roxane may be an empty-headed creampuff; the woman here implied is granted the intelligence to get the grand joke of her lover’s pose. It is a way of backing into praise where the conventions of praise have worn thin and unbelievable.

He admits he chases after beauty; the flesh interests him, and wherever that leads he follows ardently. He is famously the suitor your parents have warned you about. He would wander off in a minute if not for the fact of her surpassing loveliness. This seems all too witty.  The lover wittily makes his case, including a standard note of praise for his beloved’s beauty, from the unlikely stance of his boast of faithlessness. He would desert her, he announces directly, but for the fact that she feeds his hunger and quenches his thirst.  The figures here of hunger and thirst are love’s clichés, but come unexpected from his vow of infidelity. The gesture of bravado in “think not I would!” distinguishes this lover as a bold, piratical, risk-taker, even while he testifies to his captivity to her charms.

The lover’s next move introduces another level of inventiveness by ascribing his own vividness and changefulness to his beloved.  If freedom of choosing, based on devotion to beauty itself is the truest of commitments, the beloved would be a creature of lower capacities unless she too possessed these sublimely wild and wandering virtues. Not only is the lady intelligent, she is also free in her tastes and choosings, “so wanton, light and false.” This lover inverts the conventional Platonism by prizing instead whatever is mutable; he prefers the wayward gods to moral consistency and in doing so espouses a subversive rationality, the allure of capricious and proud beauty.  By boastfully claiming those qualities for herself and also ascribing them to his beloved, he has made the case that they are uniquely the lovers whom inconstancy binds in faithful devotion. The lover has twisted the conventions so that now he can boast that he is “most faithless when I am most true.”

What is the attraction of these lovers who play this extravagant game? Why would anyone respond to love’s call that comes in these twisted forms of expression? A series of rough surveys of my female students over the years suggests that young women prefer stammering sincerity to the artfulness of the courtier. Cyrano seems to preen in his own display of prowess with poetic ideas and turns of phrase. Is he speaking his mind and heart in the moment, or performing a speech he has perfected and stored for this occasion, and perhaps for several occasions like it. Sidney similarly shows off his wit and boldness, challenging his beloved to rise to the risks he himself is taking.  For all his polish, he is a bad boy, and who knows how long he is likely to stay adoring and adorable once his object has been achieved. Millay’s gent is similarly dangerous, too witty for his own good and a treacherous choice for his beloved. Barrett Browning, though also witty, seems more conventional and settled in her neo-platonic vows. Still, the young men, contemplating the attractiveness of what she has to say are frightened by her intelligence and ardor.  Young women find her surrender, after her challenges, to be too abject and humiliating.

These courting poets are much like the bower bird who builds an elaborate nesting house by the dusty roadside and then performs an intricate and frantic dance, displaying all his bright and exaggerating plumage, kicking up a cloud of amorous dust to dazzle his beloved. The beloved can be sure that the most elaborate bower and the most energetic dance signals a suitor who will serve her needs well. Cyrano, Sir Philip, and Millay’s clever bad boys will do well in the world because they are extraordinarily clever and witty men.  They will not sink into complacency, at least if the beloved keeps them interested. They are demonstrating skills necessary to construct the bower well and protect the beloved in a risk-filled world. Barrett Browning’s beloved shows a comparable inventiveness and resourcefulness. She knows and will continue to recognize the difference between the forms of love and what love requires imaginatively in order to keep it real. She takes risks in her own way by displaying her intelligence and demanding from her lover a clear account of himself on the highest plane of love’s ideals.

More is at issue in these questions than poetic conventions.  Behind these tense analyses of language and metaphor lie nature and the test of our spiritedness, our willingness to seek out passion, in one of our most fateful choices in life.  These verse entertainments introduce the most serious concerns of the young people we teach. Poetry, like so much else, does not mean much to the young until it is too late.


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