Plato once said, “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.” Or, as is more commonly stated, “Poetry is the language of love.” Therefore, anyone that wants to seriously write poetry will inevitably attempt to write a love poem. A novice poet might simply be tempted to compare his/her love to a rose, or some other fragrant yet thorny object. However, the more practiced poet will look to the archaic themes of longing and vulnerability to express the deep cornucopia of experiences one feels when in “love”.
Take for example the modern surrealist poet Pablo Neruda. In the poem numbered “V II”, in his book Cien Snetos de Amor, (100 Love Sonnets), Neruda delves into what seasonally might be considered the autumn of love.
Come with me, I said, and no one knew where,
or how my pain throbbed
no carnations or barcaroles for me
only a wound that love had opened.
I said it again: Come with me, as if I were dying
and no one saw the moon that bled in my mouth
or the blood that rose into the silence
O Love, now we can forget the star that has such thorns!
That is why, when I heard your voice repeat
Come with me, it was as if you had let loose
the grief, the love, the fury of a cork-trapped wine
that geyser flooding from deep in its vault
in my mouth I felt the taste of fire again
of blood and carnations, of rock and scald.
What we see in this poem is that love has been silenced. For some reason, love is left calling out, “Come with me.” The poet yarns to hear his lover’s voice one more time. And when he finally hears her voice repeat the line, “Come with me,” the poet rejoices. It is like the “fury of a cork-trapped wine/ that geyser flooding from deep in its vault.” The poet is elated to hear once again his long lost lover’s voice.
Many of Neruda’s love poem reflects the ancient themes of longing and vulnerability. Looking over my own collection of love poems, I soon discovered this same theme had crept into my work. During the drawn out years of my divorce, I found myself writing literally hundreds of poems. I wrote many distraught and desperate love poems. Eventually, I put the poems into a box and moved on with my life. After a few years, I finally pulled the poems out and re-examined them. What I found in the poems is that during the winter years of love, the themes of longing and vulnerability became the dominant themes in my poems. Here is one example:
Approach me in my sleep. Come to me in dreams.
Blow in as a breeze through the open window.
Stir-up the curtains and rattle the glass panes.
My body lies on death’s bed, clinging to a pillow.
Waiting for love to float in like an apparition,
to rescue me from this desperate affliction,
to dose me out of this drear hallucination,
to whisper into my ear. To speak of the years
long ago when love was real. When warm tears
were streams of joy. Sing softly as I am fragile
and yearn for the tenderness of the past.
Breathe into my lips so that I might last
one more play in your deep song of affection.
One more day with your illusive presence.
Approach me in my sleep, come to me in dreams.
Blow in as a breeze through my open window.
Looking back at this poem, I sense a bit of desperation. I can feel the desire for a day gone by. As if a ghost would come in and relive a time when love was tactile and tender. In this poem, love is on its death bed. At this point, the poet is simply clinging not only to a pillow, but an illusion.
Once again, the themes of longing and death are apparent in modern love poems. Yet, these themes are not a recent development. Themes of the impermanence of love and the resulting affect of longing and vulnerability can be traced back to some of human civilizations earliest examples of love poems. Take for example the delightful ancient Egyptian love poems written during the Ramesside period (ca. 1300-1100B.C.) This poem reflects love in Springtime. In this poem, the poet’s youthful bashfulness is in conflict with her longings and vulnerabilities:
I was simply off to see Nefrus my friend
Just to sit and chat at her place (about men),
When there, hot on his horses, comes Mehy.
(oh god, I said to myself, it’s Mehy!)
Right over the crest of the road
wheeling along with the boys.
Oh Mother Hathor, what shall I do?
Don’t let him see me!
Where can I hide?
Make me a small creeping thing
to slip by his eye (sharp as Horus’)
Oh, look at you, feet (this road is a river)
You walk me right out of my depth!
Someone, silly heart, is exceedingly ignorant here –
aren’t you a little too easy near Mehy?
If he sees that I see him, I know
he will know how my heart flutters (Oh, Mehy!)
I know I will blurt out,
“Please take me!” (I mustn’t!)
No, all he would do is brag out my name,
just one of the many…(I know)…
Mehy would make me just one of the girls
for all of the boys in the palace. (Oh, Mehy.)
In this poem, the young poet’s longing and vulnerabilities are exposed by her nervous excitement in meeting a young man of her fancy. Her “heart flutters (Oh, Mehy!)” Yet, she is worried if her love is revealed she would end up, “just one of the many.” What is amazing is how the emotions of young lovers have not changed much in over 3,000 years.
Finally, consider the love poetry of the ancient Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos (born ca. 630 B.C.). In her time, her lyrical musings were considered coming from the gods. She would later be called the “tenth Muse”. In this poem, the poet finds herself in the summer of love. She is sitting proudly next to her lover. Yet, by simply being near him, she reveals, “underneath my breast all the heart is shaken.” In spite of the fact that she is joined to her lover, the poet is overwhelmed in love’s insecurities:
Like the very gods in my sight is he who
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
murmur in love and
laugher, all for him. But it breaks my spirit;
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken.
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies,
I can say nothing,
but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
muted in thunder.
And the seat breaks running upon my, fever
shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
death has come near me.
Sappho of Lesbos declares that even when your lover is close enough to look you in your eyes and listen to your soft, sweet murmurs of love, you are still vulnerability and in a state of longing.
What all of these poems reveal is just how fragile love is. Human beings fall in love for a variety of reasons which this essay was not meant to explore. However, by simply looking at the legacy of love poems, themes of longing and vulnerable are repeatedly revealed. Perhaps human beings fall in love strictly out of pure lustful physical attraction. Certainly there are some lusty ancient Egyptian love poems to counter argue the thesis of this essay. However, for every hot and lustful poem of antiquity there is an equal amount of poems that deal in the essential emotion of longing which also brings people together.
While it is convenient to believe people fall in love simply out of lustful compulsion, by considering the love poems throughout history, we find a far more complicated story. If “poetry is the language of love,” then poets reveal love to be deeply personal, soul searching quest to overcome one’s longings and vulnerabilities.
Egyptian Love Poems. Lawall, Sarah., General Editor. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 2002. 39.
Neruda, Pablo. 100 Love Sonnets, Cien Sonetos de Amor. Translated by Stephen Tapscott. University of Texas Press. Austin, Texas. 1986. 19.
Sappho of Lesbos. Lawall, Sarah., General Editor. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 2002. 532.