Thursday, 22 July 2010
Two Sonnet Sequences on Love
Two Sonnet Sequences on Love: 1. Chalk White: The Moon in the Pool, from Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape (1998); 2. Romantic Love, from Reel, 2004, both in New and Collected Poems, 2008.
The experience, idea, history and language of love eventually became subjects for me. Why? Because, on the personal level, one can't help considering the shape of one's life and the way it has got to be that shape and, on the impersonal level, a great deal has been written and continues to be written about love. It is distinctly a subject that demands consideration, perhaps the most heady of subjects. Hugo Williams' life has been dedicated to one aspect, the one shared with Robert Graves. Love as the Muse. Me? I wanted to understand and praise a love that is also a lifelong commitment.
What kind of love are we considering: desire? the love that leads to a long term relationship? to marriage? to steadfast passionate friendship? to Platonic love? to religious love, that which is referred to as caritas rather than eros?
Romantic love particularly had come under examination and, to some degree, suspicion by the feminist movement of the Seventies. Romantic Love derives from Courtly Love, as a form of adventure, a kind of story. In places where marriages are arranged - and it might be useful to recall that through most of history marriages were arrangements - there is no articulate place for it. ('Marry each other, you will learn to love each other'). Courtly Love, however, is a complex narrative code developed under the conditions of the Crusades in which the woman becomes a fixed object of adulation but, in becoming fixed, her options are strictly limited. Once she has been wooed and conquered the adulation goes out of the window. There is no story to cover that part of life except by the circuitous route of adultery.
In any case, how does the sheer animal instinct of lust, combined with procreation, nurturing and survival, become the more eloquent, aspirational concept of desire? 'Our eyes met and from that moment we knew we were intended for each other!' 'I think I have met Mr Right!' 'She is the only one for me!'
'I'll love you dear, I'll love you / Till China and Africa meet / And the river jumps over the mountain / And the salmon sing in the street' wrote Auden in As I Walked Out One Evening, a wonderful farcical parody of the rituals and vows of love.
I remember reading in the Maxims of François de Le Rochefoucauld a sentence that said something like: Who would ever fall in love did they not know the discourse of love?
I had been in love (often, but only once for keeps) and continued to love. What was the condition? What could truthfully be said or sung about it?
These two sequences are far from all I wrote out of this experience and I might record one or two more in due course.
As the title suggests, Chalk White: The Moon in the Pool was one of the series of colour sonnets but coincided with the memory of waking one night and feeling what the poem describes. But the poem soon begins to question everything.
The first sonnet begins with classical symbols - columns, moons, flowers, breath, flesh. Its images are primarily erotic. Then, at the end of the sonnet the voice of the light that slides over the partner begins to speak.
In the second, the moon (the source of the light after all) is joined by the other symbols. They all address the body in the bed. There is some surprise that they should speak at all. Symbols are not quite human. The fact is there are no symbols present. There are no columns in the real room, no moon, only language referring to these things. Symbol and language address each other. They are both vacancies in one respect and packed with meaning on the other. The school room (our childhood in other words) appears where we first learned about the manners and ways of love, the discourse that Rochefoucauld talks about.
The third sonnet wants to come back to reality, but as it does so it immediately shifts back to metaphor and symbol. The partner is beautiful to the eyes, and immediately the word 'beautiful' arises like some delicate container whose contents must not be spilt. Now we cannot tell the moon from 'the moon' or indeed from plain moonshine. Nevertheless it feels as though it really is there in all its aspects.
The last sonnet tries again. It says it wants to get to a more naked level of reality, to a sense of meaning not created by the speaker, a meaning that perhaps language 'broadly understands'. The 'you' of the poem is imagined active with full autonomy, but in order to do so it must emerge from 'the white noise of the mirror', There is no moon now, but the moon in the pool remains - 'and soon it is gone'.
Put like this it seems like a set of structured ideas. It is far from that. It is simply a matter of feeling around in the dark for something that might be said honestly and out of love. The sonnet structure is what supports it. At least you know the shape of the room that way.
Romantic Love has the same theme but is composed of more disparate elements. In the first sonnet there is a train journey with a sense of unease. Two lovers appear, ask each other about their previous lovers, then vanish. Time gobbles them up. The second sonnet is the same train journey and reports an actual overheard conversation, not verbatim, but as best as I could remember it afterwards. The story of the two friends, one of whom steals the other's lover, that leads one of the friends to contemplate suicide, though he is finally talked down by the other friend and then the two go out to a lap-dancing club where they get drunk, seemed to me beautiful and funny and revealing about the flimsy but sharp edge of romantic love. The girls' conversation then fades into the noise of the ordinary unremarkable world. Their eyes dazzle like the brilliant wings of flies - a troubling image but one I will hold to, if only because: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods - they kill us for their sport.
The rape incident of the third sonnet is the memory of a story told to me some years ago by a female student who had gone to one of the Budapest baths wearing make-up and found herself surrounded by older men. She was not raped but she felt she might be. Clearly there were confused messages. That then led to the great and, in some ways, comical contrast of language, where the the same acts are addressed quite differently. Is it in fact the same act then? The 'superior' people who point out such linguistic violence are quite capable of committing such violence themselves. On the one hand the hard no-nonsense assault: on the other the more behovely vocabulary of courtship and seduction.
The last is a memory of schooldays romance - the intensity and urgency of it, and how, when such intensity is maintained, the imagination moves naturally to myth, here the example of Orpheus and Eurydice. Music, burial, resurrection. Adolescent passion is real but fully romanticised. It is perfectly willing to undertake heroic sacrifices - or so it thinks. 'First love' offers perhaps the richest and bloodiest vein of romance. Everyone gets hurt. Everyone is bloodied. And blooded. The flies image of the second sonnet is here replaced by the idea of the dazzled moth on its 'flight path of desire'.