Who ever lov'd, that lov'd not at first sight?
Marlowe, Hero and Leander
Love is a feeling that you feel when you feel you are going
to feel a feeling you have never felt before.
— Definition of Love in Leonard L Levinson’s The Left Handed Dictionary
I first heard of Hero and Leander when three of us in a junior English Literature class sneaked into a class of our seniors to listen to Prof G Kumara Pillai, one of the most popular teachers of Thiruvananthapuram’s University College in the 1960s.
A great disappointment that all of my class had because of the routine allocation of academic work in the English Department was that we were deprived of the benefit of teaching by Kumara Pillai sir, whose lectures were reputed to be as lyrical, as mellifluous and as cadence-rich as his own famous poetry. His lectures, our seniors had told us, had an ethereal quality of their own and were delivered with precise choice of words in such a pace and with such a modulation that they went straight to the heart, and head. All that the students had to do was to put down on paper the gems coming from his mouth to make superb copy for the examinations. No wonder we sneaked into a senior class to have at least a one-time experience of what turned out to be a graceful literary cascade in slow motion.
It was in the course of his lecture that he briefly, but memorably, mentioned the story of Hero and Leander, the celebrated love pair of Greek mythology. Leander, a gallant youth, and Hero, a beautiful damsel, fell for each other, though living on either side of the narrow strait of Hellespont, the natural boundary between Europe and Asia. But Leander’s love was so intense that he used to brave the waves and swim across the Hellespont every night to be with the object of his adoration, who happened to be a priestess in a temple dedicated to Venus.
Though their story ended in tragedy I always chose to remember only the positive first part, because in my mind there was a distant echo of it in Kumara Pillai sir’s later poem Ethra Yadrischikam (How Accidental) on the strange coincidences of life which bring people together unexpectedly to forge eternal love bonds.
Kumara Pillai sir was, in everyone’s view, a ‘confirmed bachelor’ when he was at the prime of his teaching career in the University College. No one thought he would ever get married. So when he actually did in the latter half of the 1960s it came as one of the most pleasant surprises for the multitude of his students, former students and acquaintances.
Perhaps in an attempt to explain himself, on his quantum jump from confirmed bachelorhood to everlasting matrimony, he gave beautiful poetic expression to his feelings on marriage and companionship in Ethra Yadrischikam that appeared in a popular periodical.
Ethra yadrischikam nammal than souhrudam,How accidental our friendship, he exclaims in the poem obviously addressed to his newfound love. He had been leading a totally carefree life all along, he tells her, going wherever he wanted, and returning whenever he chose to. There was no one to question him, none to restrain, or to counsel. But now, come Friday evening and he would invariably find himself at the bus stop at Statue Junction close to the College, waiting in anticipation for the bus to take him to Alappuzha, the abode of his wife. Thoughts on his weekly bid to cross his own Hellespont of traversing 150 km by bus for a weekend union with his beloved makes him think of other coincidences of life, from birth to death, and beyond, taking his poem from the mundane to an esoteric level.
Such coincidences in life that helped blossom love may be found as one of the most favored themes of most writers who took to poetry. In fact there is hardly any poet who has not indulged in treating love as a theme, whether it is unrequited love, love fulfilled, love scorned or love betrayed.
One of the earliest poets who figured prominently in our preliminary study of literature was Edmund Spenser, a senior contemporary of Shakespeare. Consider the way in which he chose to write an intensely personal love eulogy on his young second wife, Elizabeth Boyle, on the day of their wedding.
His longish poem of 365 lines, Epithalamion, meaning a wedding song in honor of the bride on her way to the marital chamber, incidentally was written as the culmination of a series of love sonnets on their courtship. In Epithalamion Spenser devoted one long stanza for each hour of the day and night, from his early preparations beginning one midnight to the marital consummation after the next.
His eloquence knows no bounds when describing his beautiful bride, whom he married a few months after the death of his first wife. He asks the merchants’ daughters who came for the wedding whether they had ever seen “So fair a creature in your town before, So sweet, so lovely, and so mild as she?”She is, he says, adorned with beauty’s grace, her eyes shine like sapphires, her forehead white as ivory and her cheeks as red as sun-kissed apples. And he asks for flowers to be strewn all over the ground ‘where her foot shall tread’ so that ‘stones will not do wrong to her tender foot.’
The same sentiment was perhaps exhibited by W B Yeats several years later in his short love poem Aedh Wishes for Cloths from Heaven. He says that if he had embroidered cloths from heaven he would have spread them under his beloved’s feet. “But I, being poor, have only my dreams;/ I have spread my dreams under your feet;/Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
The most worldly-wise of all poets, Shakespeare, however, has struck a different note in many of his Sonnets. As in Sonnet 130, which says “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.” Her eyes are nothing like the sun, coral is far more red than her lips, there are no shades of roses on her cheeks. He loves her to speak, but he knows that music has a more pleasing sound.
In spite of all these, he proclaims, “by heaven, I think my love as rare as any she is falsely compared with.”
Shakespeare also is firm that in ‘marriage of true minds,’ love is constant and does not admit impediments. In Sonnet 116 he says “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” It is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken. “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
On adjustments and compromises essential for success in marital life he has much to say. And he says it in the funniest way possible in Sonnet 138. Do not argue with her, agree to whatever she says even if you know it is untrue, he appears to say.
“When my love swears that she is made of truth,/ I do believe her, though I know she lies.” She might consider him as untutored youth “Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.” She also wrongly thinks that he is young though he is much past his prime. This means that simple truth is suppressed on both sides. “Therefore I lie with her and she with me,/ And in our faults by lies we flattered be.”
One interesting love poem by the great romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley showed his aversion to saying ‘Good Night’ to his beloved. “Good Night? Ah! No; the hour is ill/ Which severs those it should unite;/Let us remain together still,/Then it will be good night.” For those who are in love, “From evening close to morning light,/The night is good; because, my love,/They never say Good Night.”
All the above quotes give mostly the male viewpoint, but one poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, obviously addressed to her husband Robert Browning, appears to stand out as the best in love poetry, a pouring out of genuine feelings towards the object of her love. Elizabeth Barrett, who led an almost reclusive life because of chronic ill health and the tragic death of her brother, fell in love with Robert Browning who lifted her out of the morass she was in. Her father disliked Robert Browning as he thought he was after her money. But Elizabeth loved him so much that she chose to elope with him and later moved to Italy where her health improved and the couple had a happy life. Her poem How Do I Love Thee is a lyrical damburst of intense, heartfelt love for her beloved.
How 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 candle-light.
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 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.