Some think love is akin to floating down a placid stream. Others compare it to a pagoda of ringing bells.

Cartoonist Matt Groening likens love to a perky elf dancing a merry jig who suddenly turns on you with a machine gun.

"From time to time, love is hell even in the most ideal relationships," he says. "You end up banging your head against the wall at 3 a.m., even when logically you know there's no reason to do so."

It all started back in Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where Groening, now 32, and his roommate were having "problems with women . . . Mine were noble and tragic, but I thought his were hilarious."

So Groening started drawing on his roommate's situation as a means of "sandbagging the rivers, waiting for my next flash flood of heartbreak." He eventually expanded his subjects to embrace "everything that keeps people awake late at night -- sex, death, love, work and school."

Named "Life in Hell," the weekly strip now appears in alternative newspapers around the country, including Washington's City Paper. A collection, Love Is Hell (Pantheon, 1986, $5.95), has also been published. It's selling particularly well in Washington, to the L.A. cartoonist's mild puzzlement: "Perhaps things are even worse there."

Groening characterizes his style as "ugly but friendly -- the way most people would draw if they got the chance." All of his characters are rabbits, because they are the only identifiable figures he could do.

The popularity of the strip comes not from any artistic talent but from Groening's wry cynicism. "I wasn't researching, it just happened that way," he says. "My heart was broken once or twice, and I vowed I would never forget."

Love Is Hell covers the territory: From the 22 stages of heartbreak (amazement gives way to disbelief and shock, then pain, gloom, wounded but alive . . . and finally, readiness for further punishment) and splitsville (if you get dumped, "do not loathe yourself. You are no more an unlovable pathetic jerk than you ever were") to cohabitation ("If you're hyper, living together will mellow you out . . . If you're average, living together will last 2.3 years").

The heart of the book is its listing of the nine types of boyfriends and girlfriends, along with their good and bad points. Among them:

*"Joe Sensitive" (also known as: Mr. Nice Guy, Family Man, Honey, Darling, Soft-Boiled Egg, Snugglepup). Advantages: well-behaved; irons own shirts. Drawbacks: irritatingly compassionate; wimpy.

*"Ace of Hearts" (a k a: The Sizzler, Handyman, Dreamboat, Casanova, Monster). Advantages: perpetually aroused. Drawbacks: perpetually aroused.

"I must admit, I've been virtually every one of the nine," says Groening. "I think we all have."

As for the girlfriends:

*"The Bosser" (a k a: Whipcracker, the Sarge, Ms. Know-It-All, Ball and Chain, Yes Mom). Advantages: often right. Drawbacks: often right, but so what?

*"Wild Woman Out of Control" (a k a: Fast Girl, Freewheeler, Goodtime Charleena, Passed Out). Advantages: more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Drawbacks: unreliable; drives off cliffs.

Says Groening: "The real hell is not being able to laugh at your hellish doom." Singular Education

If more than a decade of combat on the dating battleground doesn't qualify you for leading singles seminars, what does?

"I've researched the subject intensely -- in addition to on-the-job experience," says Carolyn Long.

In a series of five small "educational forums" in Baltimore, Columbia, Md., and, starting tonight, at the Mayflower hotel in the District, Long will guide participants through the intricacies of living alone and liking it, including developing strategies for meeting people, writing personal ads, single parenting and finding a support network.

"I try and give people permission to accept their own values and to break the taboos that they can't live with," she says. Most participants are in their thirties and up: "Those in the greatest crisis are those who have been out of circulation a while."

In addition to giving seminars, the 44-year-old Long, a former social worker, is director of her own public relations firm. Single since 1975, she raised her two young children while conducting a lengthy investigation of the world of the unattached, material she is now shaping into a book.

"People need to redefine romance away from the idea of life as some sort of preprinted dime novel with a surprise ending over which you have no control," she says.

"Think of it more as an improvisational play: you're the director, playwright, choreographer and lead actor. You can project any character you want onto the stage."

The Singles' Experience, P.O. Box 228, Ellicott City, Md. 21043. (301) 596-0311. Cost is $20 in advance, $25 at the door for each seminar; any three, $50; all five, $75. It's Tradition

Millionaires may find it easier to leave their mark on history than ordinary mortals, but Julien de LaLande Poydras is the only man to be remembered for funding dowries.

The 1985 dowry dispersal in Louisiana's West Baton Rouge Parish is now complete. About 55 women -- half the number that got married in the parish last year -- received $114 each, to do with as they please.

The source of this largess is a trust fund left by Poydras, who emigrated from France in 1768 after his family refused to let him marry his first love because she was too poor to have a dowry.

Poydras became one of the wealthiest men in the South, but he never forgot that first woman. When he died in 1824, he left money to provide dowries for all the poor women in the parish. (The poverty bar was later dropped, and now any local woman can receive the money.)

"It's one thing government can do where we make people smile again," says parish administrator Ted Denstel. "Everyone comes out happy."

Beth Schexnayder, a 25-year-old government auditor who married last July, is the third generation in her family to receive the money.

"Most people here are traditional, and they carried on the tradition this man wanted," she says. "We decided not to blow it on anything frivolous. I put the money in my savings."