Love is a common theme of poets and playrights, and why not? This many-splendour’d thing called “love” is a constant companion in our daily lives, from our Birth nursed on Mother’s love, through teenage innocent “first love” experience, then later to the more complicated and convoluted affairs of adults -- involving lovers’ quarrels, triangular fistfights, consuming forbidden fruits and being consumed by their aftermath, often led the green-eyed monster to tragedy and Death.
Many of us have enjoyed watching Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) performed on stage or at the cinema or via TV. Indeed, there have been variations of this great love story by the Bard, including Spanish, Chinese, and even a Malay, adaptations which I had seen on television. Most could easily associate the lines which encapsulate the tragedy of the play:
“What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet."
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet meet and fall in love in Shakespeare's lyrical tale of "star-cross'd" lovers, unfortunately hailing from two warring families. Here Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves the person who is called "Montague", not the Montague name or family. Romeo valiantly rejects his family name and vows, as Juliet asks, to "deny (his) father" and instead be "new baptized" as Juliet's lover.
There are certain occasions when love-lorn teenagers (the sender) would “borrow” the works of great poets to convey their feelings to their love partners (the recipient). Those informed in English literature would know of the great love story of Robert Browning (1812-1889) and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861). Many can easily recite some lines from the following:
How much do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
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.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
The last two lines form the defining climax which telescopes all the preceding expressions into a gem of a conclusion -- what many star-cross’d lovers would have felt and would have been proud to have said it in Browning’s unique way. It is again another human emotion as perennial as the grass – true love that gives forth a sworn, undying devotion of one human being to another. But common mortals like us often expressed in prose via cliches such as: I’ll love you till the end of time; I’ll follow you till the end of the earth, or I’ll love you until the end of the world; I’d give up my life for you; ... the list could go on and on, but none will ever come close enough to Browning’s immortal closing.
And from another of her well quoted poems, a stanza is reproduced here:
If thou must love me, let it be for naught
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” ...
And from the other significant half, Robert Browning comes:
So the year’s done with!
(Love me for ever!)
All March begun with,
May-wreaths that bound me
June needs must sever;
Now snows fall round me,
Quenching’ June’s fever –
(Love me for ever!)
So love is a common theme in poetry in whatever language, and why not? We humans need love as much as we need air and water to survive, from the day we were born until the day we die, that’s an inescapable truth. Love is the first emotion that a baby would encounter on entering this world, for the mother’s caressing arms would have been the child’s first human experience, and it is one full of motherly love and care. So throughout life, a human being is fed on love – maybe of various kinds, ranging from parent, puppy, unrequited, sweetheart, spouse, between a gay couple, to intoxicating “first love” between teenagers, to stolen “love”, or lust, for the married man (woman too, in this age of equality!) in the arms of a secret mistress (or Cassanova)!
Rhythm and rhyme are characteristic in successful songs, the lyrics of some are so well composed they indeed qualify as “poetry”. Those in this league include compositions by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, like “Sound of Silence” (And in the naked light I saw/ Ten thousand people maybe more …) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (When you’re weary, feeling small/ When tears are in your eyes/ I’ll dry them all/ I’m on your side… ), and of course, innumerable ones by (the late) John Lennon and (Sir) Paul McCartney of The Beatles. For me, from childhood the lines from Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Foster have indelibly been etched in my mind, and I reproduce here two stanzas of what I consider one of the best love poems ever composed:
Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me
Starlight and dew-drops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world heard in the day,
Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away.
Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody;
Gone are the cares of life’s busy throng –
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
As mortals who are born to be social animals and have a natural instinct to “love and want to be loved”, a partner who becomes one’s “soul mate” evokes in the loved one a tremendous feeling of tenderness and oneness that the condition is often like “in a dream”; hence the “beautiful dreamer” description, associated with the quiet and tenderness of “the moonlight”, enchanted with song (“soft melody”) sung in a low voice so that the quiet may not be disturbed … We are all familiar with the phrase “Wine, Women and Song” – I guess the missing “wine” in Beautiful Dreamer is subtly embedded in the “kisses” that the lover awake must have softly planted on his dearest aslumber! That’s the imagination on a reader’s part, fulfilling one of the fundamental evocations that a great poem have on us! I believe an essay of a thousand words in prose would not be able to achieve what Foster could accomplish in less than a hundred words – awakening the deepest feelings and imagination in readers who have tasted the wine of a woman’s kiss, and even perhaps among those yet to be initiated into such an experience, and hence privileged to be bestowed by a maestro of an intimation of intimate moments between man and woman.
PS:(2.20pm) The theme of LOVE will be continued next Sunday. Visit desiderata.english sevendays hence, wilt thee? Is "wilt" properly used here?
PPS:(2.30pm) I read with horror an item in a newspaper today where a "prize winning" entry consisting of about 50 words contained TWO HOWLERS! Mayhaps it indicates the "state of affairs" the English language has descended into. Mercy, mercy!
Would readers want to track down what piece I'm referring to -- maybe I'll arrange for a "surprise" prize for the best argued entry to spy the referenced HOWLERS! Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org... ENJOY!