How many times have you heard that we live in a cynical and harshly knowing age of decline? How many great poems have you sighed your way through, wishing that the notable He or She loved you in such and such a way as that, thought of you that way, or wasn’t seeming to be trying to negotiate a trade-off of his or her worst qualities for yours, in which each person accepts the other’s flaws while wanting in secret the best the other has to offer (and where is that best, anyway, that was so notably there “at the beginning”?). I have a new friend (and this friend is someone in need of a sympathetic ear, so I am doing my best to listen and respond) who has asked me, via e-mail, to try to figure out why her relationship isn’t working out just the way she wants it to. And the reason she thought of asking me to cogitate and come up with a post on it is because she feels that with my capacious memory of literary love texts and the noble expressions of poets on the subject, I might qualify as a kind of expert. “Don’t I wish!” I told her. Were I an expert, my own love life might be in better shape, Mr. Right would be lovingly languishing and simultaneously flexing his poetic “muscles” at my feet, in short, I would have put my own knowledge to good use for my own benefit. So far, my moments of hope for the eventual rightness of my individual fate repose in such historical knowledge as that Elizabeth Barrett Browning, though an aging invalid and hemmed in by family disapproval, still managed to enchant Robert Browning to the point that he married her and bore her off to a happier fate than old maidishness. Today, of course, the concept of being “an old maid” or “a born bachelor” is supposedly outdated, though people cast other sorts of aspersions, suppositions, and assertions at those who stick close to the family or who live alone without a partner, everything from being “a weirdo” to “playing for the other team” to “disliking human interaction.” The fact is, some people just aren’t as lucky or as outgoing as others, which I suspect is my friend’s case (we’ll call her Lucy).
Though I have never seen Lucy face to face, she communicates that she is of ordinary appearance, not especially pretty nor the reverse, and carries a few extra pounds which come and go with her moods. She says that she has had romantic interludes and experiences with various men during her lifetime (she is about ten years younger than I, which makes her in her mid-forties), and is willing to have more, with the right party. But she also reports that she is “sick and tired” (that old phrase!) of going out of her way to try to: 1) meet eligible men 2) get their attention 3) hold their attention through enough dates or encounters to ensure that they are well-enough known to go to that formidable “next step,” intimacy, and 4) win the prize she at least thinks she wants, a long-term or life-time commitment of some kind (Lucy wants a small private wedding ideally, but is not averse to the concept of a permanent partner). The man currently in her life is not as much in her life as she would prefer. When I asked her what her favorite poet had said about love (just to get a handle on the assignment she was handing me), she said she had lots of favorite poets, but she liked that poem–what was it?–something about “How do I love thee?” I sighed. My task, I could see, in this era of waning romantic faith, was gargantuan by those terms. Because unwittingly, Lucy had chosen Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the very poet whom I had had in the back of my mind as a fortuitous model for my own hopes! Let me refresh your memory: here’s how Sonnet XLIII (from E. B. Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese) goes:
“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 candlelight./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’s 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.”
That’s goin’ some, ain’t it? Whoo-ee! And note the capitalized words “Being,” “Grace,” “Right,” “Praise,” and most of all “God” (Lucy had already confessed to being a partial disbeliever, or at least an agnostic–so what was she wanting to do with and about that “God” crack, as well as the other emphasized words?). Why is it that we often want what we possibly would not know what to do with if we had it? Or was Lucy just wanting a shove from the right quarter to make her into some kind of a believer again, if not a religious one, then a believer in high-flown ideals and morals and all the rest of it, or perhaps in high Victorian style alone? But high Victorian style (when not of the Pateresque and art for art’s sake kind) was based upon genuine belief in the eternal verities, or at least upon knowing where to look for them (as Tennyson himself, the Poet Laureate, said in his long poem In Memoriam, “There lives more faith in honest doubt,/Believe me, than in half the creeds”). Not to mention that “feeling out of sight for the ends of Being and ideal Grace” is one hell of an attempt to “cop a feel”! (Sorry, Lucy, my twenty-first century nature couldn’t resist the word play).
But E. B. Browning didn’t just write this sonnet, she wrote the whole series of them. So, as an attempt to deal seriously with, if not to answer, Lucy’s dilemma, let me quote yet another sonnet by Barrett Browning, and one which, instead of only sounding the noblest sentiments of love, gives credence to a certain sort of pragmatism of love, though it still purports to lead the lover to “eternity.” In this sonnet, Sonnet XIV, we see the speaker warding off half-way measures and ill-luck, and seeking the best kind of love that it’s possible to have and still be humanly vulnerable:
“If thou must love me, let it be for naught/Except for love’s sake only. Do not say “I love her for her smile–her look–her way/Of speaking gently–for a trick of thought/That falls in well with mine, and certes brought/A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”–/For these things in themselves, Beloved, may/Be changed, or change for thee–and love, so wrought,/May be unwrought so. Neither love me for/Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry–/A creature might forget to weep, who bore/Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!/But love me for love’s sake, that evermore/Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.”
Really, all the less noble kinds of love mentioned in this second sonnet are kinds of love we see all around us every day, the physical, the mentally companionable, the charitable–and there are many more less-than-total types of devotion which we are being invited to imagine, as in our own thoughts we ponder these few examples. But I say that this is a more pragmatic poem than the first because it relies not on so many superlatives of the imagined world we inhabit as it does upon one single one: “love’s eternity.” In fact, the only word capitalized for emphasis here is “Beloved.” There is no appeal to God, or Being, or Grace–the poet’s only claims are that there is love in the present tense of the person being addressed, and that love has some sort of eternity, some longer life, that will persist if the correct attitude is achieved. Now, where exactly does that leave my friend Lucy?
How does one match the correct attitude to the correct recipient? Hasn’t it always been that we think we have to find the correct recipient for what we already have estimated that we have to offer? But perhaps our estimates are off. If one starts to build a house, and the final cost is more than the estimates, there’s bound to be legal trouble a-brewin’! So, maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t trust our own estimates of what we have to offer, right? Maybe we should find a good friend to help us estimate what we can claim to be all about, romantically speaking–but the good friend (in this case, I’ve ended up more or less estimating only my own sense of difficulty in this role) may likewise be too strict or too generous, or enters the human equation with other defects of attitude, capability, or experience. So, Lucy, here’s my answer to your dilemma, which you asked to see appear on my website: in this case, attitude-correction and altitude-correction may be the same thing. If your present lover doesn’t inspire confidence in you with his abilities as you have perceived them so far, rather than reproaching yourself for wanting to be loved as a high Victorian, in punctilious faithfulness and somewhat sentimentalized Romanticism, or reproaching him as do-less, faith-less, without feeling, and the rest of it, try a little forthrightness, which was above all what E. B. Browning was all about. She not only confessed the “depths” and “breadths” and “heights” of her own love, but told her lover what she wanted, and spelled it out directly and exactly. And though she still used a word we sometimes scoff at these days (“eternity”), she “came down” from her high altitude up there with “Being” and “ideal Grace” and at least referenced precisely what she had in mind. So, how should you do this? If your lover wants to watch burly men bash each other over the head with hockey sticks, make a deal: you’ll do this if he’ll listen to you read E. B. Browning’s sonnets, at least these two. I know, you’ve already struck compromises like this, and often they come under the category of doing something I’ve already mentioned in my first paragraph, that is, making a trade-off of your worst qualities (from his point of view, perhaps) for his (perhaps, from yours). But stick with it. Give him a chance to express just exactly what he finds over-the-top (or lacking) in your view of love. After all, E. B. Browning didn’t say that she “saw” what she was angling for immediately when she strove with the equations of love: she said she was “feeling out of sight/ For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.” And, to cap this whole quotation-game-with-serious-consequences off, it was her own ideal mate, her husband Robert Browning, who wrote about at least the artistic effort itself that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?” So, since you are looking to the artistic effort of E. B. Browning for inspiration with how to handle your lover, why not look to how her lover might have answered too, accepting that it’s heaven itself which if we believe in it can finally answer all our hopes, but because we are finite at least in this life, we may have to reach and reach and reach, and still be less than perfectly satisfied? Note that I’m not telling you to “settle,” but why not give your lover a dose of the poetry that you feel frees you up and feeds your soul? You may find that his notion of the steamy love affair is just as excited by a woman’s poetic voice avowing eternal love as yours is by the idea of seeing strong men forget themselves when possessed by powerful emotions (I’m blurring the lines between love poetry and hockey here to make my point). Dear Lucy, I hope this piece of writing satisfies some need you’ve felt to have your problem considered as seriously as I know how to consider it, which is to say, with the occasional jest, but no less seriously than I do for myself. All the best with your man, or failing him, with his potential successor, and the best of hopes for general love and happiness.