NOT ALL that long ago in New York - in a group that included the editor of one of the more serious magazines in America, and one of the most persistently exacting Americans poets who is now writing - someone aksed why we no longer write love poetry any more. Neither the editor, nor the poet, nor any of the rest of us, could find any real answer. I do not expect to get much farther. But it is spring and the question keeps recurring.
If there are still young swains who lose their ardent hearts to glad shepherdess, they will be well advised to plunder the works of Herrick and not rely on any con-temporary poet. Once read at whatever age, his lines cannot then be forgotten:
When as in silk my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.
What more lightly glancing couplet is there than:
When Julia blushes, she do's show
Cheeks like to Roses, when they blow.
He could even write a poem "Upon Julia's Sweat":
Wo'd ye oyle and Blossomes get?
Take it from my Julia's sweat.
One has only to go through the titles of his poems to Julia, and one seems to be walking in fields of blossoms: "A Ring Presented to Julia"; "In her Dawne, of Daybreake"; "Upon Julia's haire, bundled up with a golden net"; "Upon Julia's washing her selfe in the river"; and still more, the poems upon her Breath, her Bed, her Legs, her Fall, her Lips, her Petticoat, her Picture, her Riband, her Voice . . . Still he has not exhausted her - or (remarkably!) - even himself.
Or the poems to Anthea, "who may command him anything":
Thou art my life, my love, my heart,
The very eyes of me:
And hast command of every part,
To live and die for thee.
The love explored in love poetry should not be taken altogether literally. One must advise young men not to fall immediately on their swords at the inconstancy of their ladies. Yet the poetry does help us to define what we mean by love. C.S. Lewis once said that the creation of romance poetry in the Middle Ages was a cultural break compared with which the Renaissance was little more than a fleck on the surface. Love poetry was only a small part of romance poetry but it spoke of something new.
The epic before it had sung of men who were willing to die for honor-they were bidden by honor and not morality-for the code that bound a man to his lord and his companions. There was something heroically, but to us unsatisfyingly, impersonal in the devotion of the great epic figures to whatever of whoever embodied their ideal. There was blood in them, one sometimes feels, but was there flesh to them?
The playfulness and abandon, and of course the sensuality, of love had yet to be given a voice. "Such were on the whole alien to the real heroic spirit," C.M. Bowra wrote. "Homer's heroes enjoy their food and drink, but fantastic aspects of love-making are confined to the gods who are free from the limitations of human life and from its obligation to live nobly."
The romance did not altogether free men from these limitations and obligations. But the relationship between the sexes was at least brought to fire, direct and personal and individual. All sorts of wayward feelings were realeased, against which the romance tried to draw a line with its code of chivalry, but what now did it mean to live and love and die nobly? What was the honor in so personal a devotion of one to one?
By the time we reach the love poetry of Herrick and his contemporaries, and the restraints even of romance have been removed, no holds are barred and all is fair in love and war. In a verse like this, love has been unfastened:
To Roses in Julia's Bosome
Roses, you can never die ,
Since the place wherein ye lye,
Heat and moisture mixt are so,
As to make ye ever grow.
As in all the greatest of love poetry, even these apparently simple lines play on the theme of immortality, of whether love will die. Will it not live like the roses? In one of the truest love poems of all times-Burns' "O, my love is like a red red rose" - it is of love's timelessness that he sings:
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt i' the sun,
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.
In our own time, in one of the ballads of Auden, the hope is still sung:
I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain,
And salmon sing in the street.
But then the bleak wintry voice of our age:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer time."
At the end the question is left unanswered.
But the great writers of love poetry put the question to rest. "Put to rest" is hardly the way to say it. They threw down their love like a gauntlet in the face of time. It shall -not just will-conquer time.
No one tussled with the question more passionately or more exactly than John Donne. But as he struggled again and again with it-can love conquer even death?-he grappled with another no less furious. Is not love where our bodies and our spirits meet? This is why the love poetry of our civilization is sensual but not merely erotic. The love poetry of the West is concentrated in one only and one whole person. On Julia, in short.
It may linger over a breat - and why not? - but then to find the voice or a blush. To find even the decoration - his or hers - for this, too, is an expression. To fix on the diadem for the hair which, of course, is jeweled with dew. (With what else, in the name of heaven, would it be jeweled?) What Donne and his contemporaries gave to love poetry was the idea that love consists of two people loving, of love given to love returned, of the "I" and the "Thee" becoming one "We." The lover is no longer just a votarist. It is this uniquely and jointly made "We" that will survive.
The two make this new "We," but they are not submerged in it. There is in all love poetry a passionate struggle between the desire to possess and the urgent recognition that to possess will destroy the love. The lover is always on the brink of occupation, and then pulling back in time, noticing what he or she will not try to possess.
There is a willing sacrifice in this. Love always triumphs if it is true, but its victories are without spoils. The happy lover, satisfied, and the unhappy lover, unsatisfied, are one and the same. It is what will survive that counts to him, what will at last outlive even the crack of doom. For this the surrender of "I" and "Thee" to "We" can be made. We have no love poetry because we have no sense, not only of what will conquer time and death, but of the fact that only by sacrifice may they be overcome.
When Auden writes in his "Lullaby":
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
it is lovely but aching. Still the search for timelessness, even from one night, but with what a pain of anxiety. Where are the crocuses" Where is the "liquefaction?" How can they be if nothing more is to be made of such feeling, such longing, if we do not truly believe that even human love may have life after death?