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Published: Mon Oct 12 2015
Gerry Bergstein, Sky Writer #2 (detail), 2019, oil on canvas
The Love Bite

Love runs on a gift economy—so we’re told. When we give freely of ourselves, our love is not taken away from us. Instead, we receive the gift of affection in return.

Poems may tell us otherwise.  They dwell instead on the imbalance between the love you show and the love you get back.   Time, nature, other people; all of them at the ready to break love’s back.

Some poems weep at the sight of life defeating our delights.  Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect” mourns the children romping in a field: see “The little victims play” it commands us, and then points out the baleful “ministers of human fate” standing nearby.  Someday, “suffer the children”; but it is the poet who cries now.

Likewise Robert Frost: in “Directive” he shows us a “house that is no more a house,” and the children’s broken and abandoned playthings we can find in the cellar-hole. Then he breaks out: “Weep for what little things could make them glad.” Time the destroyer, time the pity-maker.

So goes the dark pastorals of Frost and Gray. Perhaps nature itself can offer lighter tones? William Wordsworth praises Nature for impressing us with “quietness and beauty”; it gracefully in-forms us.  But in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Nature’s role is to fortify us against mean-spirited townspeople, the “evil tongues” and “sneers of selfish men” that rob us of “cheerful faith.”  The love of Nature helps barricade us against the sourness and deficits of mankind.

The pastoral, then, is punctured by the sad note of the human. In the modern pastoral, the whole natural panorama is itself found wanting. Inspecting the towns and landscape, Philip Larkin sums up: “none of this cares for us.” In his poem “Talking in Bed,” he turns from the landscape and focuses instead on the restorative bed, our bower that keeps isolation away. Yet even in bed, Larkin concedes, the best two people can say to each other—having failed at words sustainably “true and kind”—are words “not untrue and not unkind.”

Love, given out and lost; love dissipated by time, disputed by townsmen, disbelieved by poets; a child’s imaginary tea-set, a cracked and leaky cup.  In such breaks and twists and jabs, poems talk of love: love curl, love knot, love bite.

Blake’s “Clod and Pebble” presents the twists of love simply.  His Clod of clay proposes that “Love seeketh not itself to please,” but instead makes life easy for someone else.  All generosity, all the time. But then Blake’s warbling river Pebble answers back: “Love seeketh only self to please,” and only finds joy “in another’s loss of ease.”  This answer is Blake’s bleak match.com—a date between sadist and masochist. It “builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Blake’s conversation poem may seem a circling merry-go-round, of selfless and selfish love. But the generous Clod is crushed by cattle; and the selfish Pebble gets the last rhyme.  So Blake’s poem may point toward Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” whose speaker boasts,

every woman adores a Fascist,

the boot in the face …

Suffer the children; and suffer the women. Love’s pendulum slices back and forth: selfless love allowing selfish love to grow; selfish love somehow prompting a selfless, adoring impulse in return. It is not a sublime, not the exalted suffering of passio, but part of our mundane.  Gail Mazur recognizes us as the “mammal programmed for cruelty.” But she also notes, “my fears are ordinary.”  Even in the ordinary, in the “dreary intercourse of daily life” that sends Wordsworth running to the woods, we can trace the shifts in the love-economy, as giver and getter gain or lose power.

Just recently I looked across the tidal shift, and glimpsed an earlier form of love, one that might fail in today’s love-marketplace. The form I saw seemed a washout from Martin Buber: an “I,” always ready to give and give, and an empty “Thou,” always in need. The unfillable loving cup.

My wife and I had got lost watching the 1942 tearjerker In This Our Life, starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.  Near the end, after several family struggles, romantic betrayals, and a car chase, Olivia murmurs to her man that, someday soon, he might not stay true to her.

He protests, “I do need you.  And I’m going to go on needing you as long as I live.”  And then—get this—Olivia looks up smiling at him, as if she’s somehow gratified and assured of affection.  Heaven, in 1942, is a needy man, turning toward you, day in and day out.  Nowadays, has this become a Hell?

We were a bit stunned. I asked, when did love shift from “man in need, woman giving” to whatever we have now? My wife said, “It changed in 1968, when Joan Didion published ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem.’”

“Actually,” she added, “it never changed at all.”

She’s right—twice. But then, perhaps we both got it wrong. Love may not be about “getting and spending” affection, as Wordsworth puts it; love may not be a counting up and recounting our affections, some tally of an “eye for an eye.” But if love doesn’t keep score, it’s not due to generosity.

Quite the opposite: love may not attend to us at all. Like the shark, it cannot see the thing it bites. And it lives or dies from its own secret causes, not from our feeling.

In “Skunk Hour,” Robert Lowell hears the tune “Love, O careless Love” wafting through night air from the “love-cars” of teenagers. It’s not his tune. Years later, the wife he betrayed reminds him of how love can die: “love vanquished by his mysterious carelessness.”

Love, careless of its power to heal or harm us, and blind to our devotions or betrayals.  The potion “love-in-idleness” that, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, makes a man honk and bray.

David Gewanter is the author of In the Belly and The Sleep of Reason (both from University of Chicago Press) and co-editor, with Frank Bidart, of Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Faber and Faber). His latest book, War Bird, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2009. Awards include a Hopwood Prize, Zacharis First Book Prize, Whiting Writer’s Fellowship, and Witter Bynner Fellowship. He was a finalist for the James Laughlin Prize, and his edition of Lowell won the Ambassador Book Award from the English-Speaking Union and “Book of the Year” from Contemporary Poetry Review. He teaches at Georgetown University. (updated 12/2016)

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