Love is a many splendored thing, so they say. In the romantic aftermath of Valentine’s Day, depending on whether you were pleasantly surprised or painfully let down, you may agree or disagree. In literature, love certainly is a big deal. There are many different aspects of love in the literary form; we saw last week one example of a love not dared spoken by the lips of the modern manufacturers of romance flourishing in verse. Yet while literature provides us with many various lovers and passions, are the tales of love we read all so far removed from reality?
In a recent article, the author Alain De Botton states that literature’s representations of love are not just slightly dreamy and idealistic visions (indeed, often they can be precisely the opposite) but completely unrealistic, having very little in common with real life relationships. Some may argue that may be precisely the point. According to De Botton, novels are only of help in the love department to victims of the deeply unfortunate and unrequited kind and even then they’re best used not as an adviser but as a sympathiser; characters and readers alike comfort and console each other in a wallowing torture with their hopeless romantic states. Otherwise there is a significant chasm between love on the page and in life, specifically when it comes down to the matter of everlasting vows and commitments. How can any lifelong bookworm really be expected to weather the inevitable storms – or storms-in-a-teacup as they may often be – of marriage or long-term unions when they’ve been tutored with the notion that love is both free of conflict and essentially not meant to last (at least, not in a ‘ordinary’ world filled with arguments about who’s going to do the washing up and put the cat out)?
Whether it’s wise to use the classics as intensive ‘how-to’ guidebooks for relationships, who knows (I’d venture that it probably isn’t). But it doesn’t mean to say we should dismiss the ‘realness’ of love in literature entirely. Perhaps it is unlikely that we’ll feel quite the same intensity of infatuation as many a literary lover or enjoy a blissful happily-ever-after existence, but many of us can still recognise our own romantic experiences in a sentence, stanza or paragraph; even if only briefly, it is testament to the power of literature that we can find a parallel to our lives in something penned sometimes long in the past. And of course there is the matter that love in literature, as in life, is rarely one singular and simple entity.
Here is another aspect that is altogether different from Thomas Moore’s changing but ultimately serene vision of a long-term love, and one that could be approved as being closer to a more harsh reality than many odes on the subject. As someone described as a ‘pessimistic poet’, it isn’t surprising that Edwin Arlington Robinson paints a picture of a relationship that is less than ideal, past the honeymoon stage and in more ‘comfortable’ territory. Yet far from being serenely settled, as the first stanza may suggest, a definite tension is very much apparent beneath the surface; the two lovers described somewhat inharmoniously as being ‘wiser for silence’. This poem stays just on the right side of realism; not blind to the strains and sometime deep discomfort that is part and parcel of ongoing love but not so cynical as to portray a complete absence of love and comfort – there is still a sense of fragile beauty as well as claustrophobia in the couple’s confined space with ‘the blessing of what neither says aloud’ hanging in the air, proving a powerful description of the multiplicities of love.
Ten years together without yet a cloud
They seek each other’s eyes at intervals
Of gratefulness to firelight and four walls
For love’s obliteration of the crowd.
Serenely and perennially endowed
And bowered as few may be, their joy recalls
No snake, no sword; and over them there falls
The blessing of what neither says aloud.
Wiser for silence, they were not so glad
Were she to read the graven tale of lines
On the wan face of one somewhere alone;
Nor were they more content could he have had
Her thoughts a moment since of one who shines
Apart, and would be hers if he had known.
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)