It isn’t all roses & chocolates: the love of ‘La Belle Dame…’

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)
John William Waterhouse – La Belle Dame sans Merci 1893

I have written a number of posts highlighting some of the world’s most beautiful love poetry.  Many are under the banner of ‘Love Songs you wish you had written…’, a meme I took from the wonderful Dad Poet, David J Beauman. Some of the poems I have chosen in the past are full of longing, or are wistful. Some are simply dedicated to a chosen one, or highlight the very simplicity and ordinariness of life in a comfortable, loving relationship. I am in one such, so it has been, I suppose, more natural to choose poems that praise something most of us search for, more or less successfully, throughout our lives. A few have been more cynical, or tempered with the sense of an ending, but I don’t think any have focused on the unhappy or even destructive consequences of a disastrous affair and I thought it might be time to redress the balance a little. After all, St Valentine’s Day is not for everyone. The poem I have chosen today might convert many to the joys of singledom, for example……

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats  (published version, 1820)

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery’s song.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
I love thee true.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz’d and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes–
So kiss’d to sleep.

And there we slumber’d on the moss,
And there I dream’d, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry’d–“La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

This is one of John Keats’s most famous poems, subject to a myriad interpretations, linked to his love for Fanny Brawne, his fears about the destructive nature of passion (particularly on his poetic ambitions) and his incipient decline into the latter stages of the tuberculosis that was to kill him in 1821. It can be read as full of ‘double entendres’ – sitting a woman on his ‘pacing steed’, garlanding a ‘fragrant zone’ and enjoying much sighing and moaning, suggestive of a night of passion. Or you can read it as a gothic tale of a cruel “beautiful lady without mercy” as the French translation of the title suggests. In any event, it is, in my opinion, a brilliant, tightly structured ballad that creates intense atmosphere and offers a clear warning to those beguiled by passion and romance –  if only our nameless knight had seen the kings and princes already abandoned by their cruel lover- ‘I saw their starved lips in the gloam,/With horrid warning gapèd wide,’.

I have written about how Keats has influenced artists through the ages – from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , through to graphic novelists, comic-book  writers and contemporary film-makers, but to day it may be seen as one for those who are rather sick of the hearts, flowers and sickly sentimental commercialism that often seems to accompany St Valentine’s Day. Have a good day anyway……

 

 

 

On St Valentine’s Day – Love poems you wish you had written 2015 #4 – UA Fanthorpe

love_poem_400x400So we come to the ‘big day’ itself. The 14th of February, St Valentine’s Day and apparently the most romantic day of the year. Of course, for many it is nothing like that, by circumstance or choice.  There is something rather uncomfortable (and occasionally nauseating) about seeing rows and rows of red cards of various design (and taste) in the shops as soon as Christmas cards are swept into the stock room once more.

However, the sentiment is a fine one and when I called for requests this year, asking my readers and friends on social media to suggest love poems for this short series, one stood out as distilling my feelings for my own Valentine – my lovely husband Peter. And it isn’t by John Keats (though I was sorely tempted of course!)

fanthorpe180U (Ursula) A Fanthorpe was a British poet who died in 2009 and I have to admit that I didn’t know much about her poetry at all, until prompted by Jessamy Carlson  (‏@rjc_archives ) on twitter. Her obituaries describe her as ‘a great role model for all of us who could do with a bit of ‘late flowering’ ‘ and I am determined to read more of her work in the future. I think this poem sums up that kind of love that, whilst ‘everyday’, is vital for the maintenance of another’s happiness and which inspires devotion, understanding and acceptance. I have a very ‘suspect edifice’ at times, and regularly require a metaphorical re-wiring and re-pointing. This is quite different from Donne, Auden or Yeats, but utterly believable and real.

Atlas

UA Fanthorpe, from Safe as Houses (Peterloo Poets, 1995)

There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

What do you think? Do you still find it romantic, as I do, despite the imagery being more practical than poetic?

Sadly, I could not find a reading on YouTube and there is no recording of Fanthorpe reading Atlas on The Poetry Archive, although she reads three other poems, including ‘Earthed’.

So this week of love poetry has been fun for me, and asking for requests took the pressure off a little as I struggled to sift through the many, many poetry books that fill my shelves. There were other poems suggested, including Because I liked you, a sombre piece by A E Houseman, How do I love thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, La Vita Nuova by Dante and a number of poems by Carol Ann Duffy, two of which were included on a companion post by the lovely Dad Poet. My thanks to everyone who got in touch.

So on Valentine’s Day love and be loved, or take heart in the thought that somewhere out there is the person for whom, one day, you can find a just the right poem. I hope the past few days, and my previous posts on poetry (just search in the box above or find ‘poetry’ in the word count to the right) have given you a few ideas.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Love poems you wish you had written 2015 #3 – W. B Yeats

William_Butler_Yeats_by_George_Charles_BeresfordWell, haven’t I had some wonderful suggestions for this series of love poems for St Valentine’s Day and beyond? Donne, Auden and now Yeats. This one, I have to admit, is one that I have loved since my teens, with that vain hope that one day someone would write something like it for me….

Hey ho, such is real life that nothing has yet been forthcoming and a limerick might be the best I can hope for now. But that doesn’t prevent me, and it seems many of my Facebook friends, dreaming. This great poem – Aedh (or He) Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven was suggested by Jane Earthy, Ada Mournian and Deborah Metters, amongst others and it is one of those poems that itch to be learnt by heart.

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865 and became one of the foremost literary figures of the twentieth century. His protestant background did not prevent him breaking with tradition and affirming his Irish nationality and as a young man he was intrigued by Irish myth and the occult and dabbled in spiritualism. There is so much to say about his life, and his love life, that I can’t hope to summarise here, so I recommend you visit The Poetry Foundation website.  It offers a  succinct biography that details his life and influences; he was a fascinating man and a great poet.

He wishes for the cloths of heaven, published in The Wind Among the Reeds in 1899is brilliantly imaginative and colourful; the poet admits to financial poverty but offers his love his dreams instead, seeming appealingly vulnerable (they are ‘only’ dreams). However, the richness of the words (and cloth) he spins are so utterly compelling that who could resist? The musicality of some of the lines is wonderful – I particularly love The blue and the dim and the dark cloths/Of night and light and the half-light…..

He wishes for the cloths of heaven

W B Yeats 

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your 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.

I have found another lovely reading, this time by Sir Anthony Hopkins. Brief, but beautiful.

Could you trample on the dreams of anyone who wrote those words for you? Thanks to everyone who suggested this one – truly a poem anyone could wish to have written, or have written for them!

Love poems you wish you had written 2015 #2 – W.H. Auden

220px-AudenVanVechten1939For the second of my posts, specially written as we approach St Valentine’s Day, I focus on a poem by W.H. Auden. Anyone who has seen Four Weddings and a Funeral will know the poem which starts ‘Stop all the clocks…’, so movingly read by John Hannah at the funeral of his dead partner, played by Simon Callow. It is chokingly good, and bitterly sad.

However, for this week, as requested by historian Jessica Meyer on Twitter, I am reproducing another great love lyric by Auden – Lullaby. Sometimes referred to by the first line ‘Lay your sleeping head my love…’ it is about time passing, the inevitable fading of beauty and the enduring nature of love. Auden was born in 1907 and is now regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  He was a great poetic technician, but also wrote remarkable prose on profound topics. He is a poet I love to read, although I have never studied his work in depth. So I simply respond, and in this poem I like the way a classic meditation on love is subverted – most particularly by the lover’s ‘faithless’ arm. Is this a reference to atheistic beliefs? Is this about a night spent making love to someone other than the poet’s regular partner (with a further reference to fidelity in the third stanza)? Or is it simply a recognition that we are all frail, imperfect human beings when it comes to love and that in that moment there is no-one more entirely beautiful and adored than the sleeping lover? What do you think?

Lullaby
W. H. Auden, (1907 – 1973)

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Again, I have found a reading  – sometimes it helps to hear a poem read aloud (although I always like to read it to myself, under my breath or out loud and proud if I am alone in the house!) and this version is accompanied by some sweet music. I would love to know what you think, and as always do let me know your own favourite poems.

Love poems you wish you had written 2015 – #1 John Donne

JohnDonneLast year I followed the example of the fabulous David J Bauman over at The Dad Poet and posted some of my favourite love poetry. I had a great time rediscovering some old favourites and finding new work that moved me; poetry that really had the power to distil emotions and make me cry out (internally anyway!) ‘Yes!!’

So this year, I thought I would do something similar, but with poems nominated by friends on social media. I have always maintained that those who say ‘I don’t like/get poetry’ just haven’t found the right poet for them, so I do hope something on this blog inspires you to take a closer look, for Valentine’s Day on the 14th, and onwards.

The first poem of the week was nominated by Lorna Fergusson, over at Fictionfire, and seconded by Emma Darwin. It was published nearly 400 years ago, but it still has the power to send (pleasurable) shivers down the spine…..

The Good-Morrow
By John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

This is a wonderful evocation of the sensual and spiritual aspects of the love between two people, and as the film Fifty Shades of Grey hits the screen, I posit the idea that Donne is sexier by far than anything E L James came up with. The lines For love, all love of other sights controls/And makes one little room an everywhere is so quietly passionate that the intensity of the emotion expressed can escape you. Makes me go all warm inside and conjures up an illicit weekend away – 48 hours and never leaving the room…….

I thought I would also offer a reading of the poems I post on here, if possible, and on YouTube I found my favourite actor, the lovely Kenneth Branagh, reading it. Do let me know what you think, and if you have favourite love poems of your own.

Enjoy 🙂

Love poems you wish you had written #5 – John Keats

John
John

On this, the 14th February, I reach the end of my series ‘Love poems you wish you had written’ with one that most who know me would have anticipated from the very beginning.

This poem still offers the John Keats reader much to think about. When was it written? To whom? Does Keats want to be like the star? Or is he rejecting its lonely view of the world, cold and distant and unable to do anything but observe its beauties?

The film ‘Bright Star’ (Jane Campion 2009) brought this sonnet to the attention of a much wider audience, who saw it for what it actually was – a poem for Fanny Brawne, the woman to whom he was, at the end of his life, secretly engaged and who inspired the following exclamation of passionate love:

“I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion—I have shudder’d at it—I shudder no more—I could be martyr’d for my Religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that—I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you its only tenet…”

Some still believe this to be his last poem, written on the boat that took him to Italy in the autumn of 1820. He had just five months to live and his best poetry was behind him then. He found it difficult to write anything and even to think of Fanny caused him  great pain. This sonnet was actually written to Fanny much earlier, when he was in better health, and probably revised on that last voyage. In it he is, I believe, admiring that ‘bright star’ so steadfast, so splendid and spiritual; but rejecting the aloof, eternal view it offers in favour of a reality that allows him the physical contact he so desires and the unchangeable love that is subject only to death.

Bright Star

by John Keats (1795 to 1821)

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

 

And of course, as it is the Big Day itself – St Valentine’s Day – I dedicate the following to Peter. His name means ‘a rock’. He certainly is mine. 28 years this year says much and the last two lines of Anne Bradstreet’s poem speaks for me here.

To My Dear and Loving Husband

by Anne Bradstreet (1612 to 1672)

If ever two were one, then surely we. 
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee; 
If ever wife was happy in a man, 
Compare with me ye women if you can. 
I prize thy love more then whole Mines of gold, 
Or all the riches that the East doth hold. 
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench, 
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompence. 
Thy love is such I can no way repay, 
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray. 
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever, 
That when we live no more, we may live ever. 

I hope the day brings you all the love you seek.

Love poems you wish you had written #2 – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

This is such an enjoyable series to work on . It is made more poignant for me at the moment as I spend a week away from my husband, ostensibly writing ‘Shell-Shocked Britain’ for Pen and Sword Books. Perhaps, when it comes to the end of September and the manuscript is due to be delivered I will regret spending an hour with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but I don’t think so. I have already written more than 1000 words of my book and this is a gentle break of an hour or so.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6, 1806 in Durham, England. Her father made a fortune in Jamaican sugar plantations, buying a 500 acre estate in the Malvern Hills where Elizabeth led a privileged childhood, developing a precocious interest in literature. She was encouraged by Mr Barrett who called her the ‘poet laureate of Hope End’ and she became a devotee of Shakespeare and Milton and a passionate admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft and her ideas.  However, her father suffered financial losses requiring the sale of the house at Hope End and they moved, eventually, to Wimpole Street in London. Elizabeth suffered increasingly poor health after the move. She became reclusive and frail, seeing few people. Her reputation as a writer was, however, already bringing her to public attention and by 1844 she was feted by literary circles and increasingly by the wider public.

Her reputation today is enhanced by the romantic story behind her marriage to fellow poet Robert Browning, who was encouraged to write to her following the publication of her first volume of poetry and whom she first met in 1845. It is one of the most famous courtships in literature. At 39 she considered herself an invalid, and could not believe that Browning, six years her junior and a ‘man of the world’ loved her as much as he said he did.  Over the next two years she worked through her doubts in the series ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’. Browning, though, was genuine in his devotion, marrying her and taking her to Italy.

One of the most popular of the long series starts ‘How do I love thee? let me count the ways’, (Sonnet XLIII) but that is not the one I have chosen to include in this series. I most admire Sonnet XIV, where Elizabeth speaks to her love of her concerns that he adores her only for those reasons that can most easily fade – her smile, her way of speaking or for pity (as she says, being loved could make her so happy that ‘A creature might forget to weep, who bore/Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!’) It has a simple message  – love me for love’s own sake and then love will endure.

Sonnets from the Portuguese XIV

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
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, Belovëd, 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 may’st love on, through love’s eternity.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was frail, suffering from ill-health that has defied proper diagnosis but which was almost certainly exacerbated by the use of opiates to ease her discomfort. But the romantic story survives to the end of her life, in 1861, when she died in the arms of her husband,  ‘smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s. … Her last word was—… ‘Beautiful’

Love poems you wish you had written #1 – David Constantine

loveI do have to mention, as I begin this post, that I was inspired by the wonderful David J Bauman over at The Dad Poet. We both love poetry and he has a wonderful reading voice – I was lucky enough to have him read one of my own poems, Life Force, included in Dandelions and Bad Hair Days.

Anyway, as we approach St Valentine’s Day I thought I would, with his permission, pinch his idea and post some poems that I wish I had written.

There are many classic love poems, often read at weddings, which move us and which are truly beautiful. But I think it is very hard to get love poetry ‘right’ as we live ever further into the 21st Century and life seems to take us away from expressing our feelings eloquently to those we love. Text speak is not designed to involve deep thought, or send a pleasant shiver down the spine. An email just doesn’t compare to the joy of a handwritten note and Valentine’s Day cards are just as likely to refer to ‘willies’ and ‘boobs’ as to hearts and flowers.

So I am full of admiration for contemporary poets who can express universal feelings of love, disappointment, longing and lust in language with which we can all identify.

In the past I have posted on Carol Ann Duffy’s Words Wide Night, one of my favourite poems of longing and Thom Gunn’s The Hug, which is an embrace in words. These are two of the poems I would have included in this series; but this exercise has encouraged me to read more widely in my collections of poetry to discover more fabulous poems of the heart.

constantine_127_127So #1 is As our bloods separate by David Constantine, a poet born in Salford, Lancashire in 1944.

 

 

As our bloods separate the clock resumes,
I hear the wind again as our hearts quieten.
We were a ring: the clock ticked round us
For that time and the wind was deflected

The clock pecks everything to the bone.
The wind enters through the broken eyes.
Of houses and through their wide mouths
And scatters the ashes from the hearth.

Sleep. Do not let go my hand.

I love this for its physicality and its intense sensuality.  ‘I hear the wind again as our hearts quieten’ so neatly expresses how the abandonment of all consuming passion creates a world apart for the lovers, they have succeeded in suspending time; but this is then tempered by a sense of what seems to be intense fear and anxiety. The clock ticking is a greedy bird, eating away to the end of everything; the wind is something destructive and inescapable – reaching even to the hearth. The heart of the home. That anxiety needs continued contact. ‘Do not let go my hand’ is so definite, so filled with the need for comfort and protection from the truth of the world outside that room, that the love between these two people becomes something outside reality, a reality which is an eerie, hostile world. It is a world in which none of us can escape the passing of time.

Well that is how I see it anyway. For me it is an intense love poem and although dark, it is romantic in the way it expresses longing and a denial of the reality of the inevitable ‘scattering of ashes’.

What do you think? I am really interested in what others consider ‘love’ poems. Are the best romantic and full of lush imagery? Are they humorous or full of longing? I would really enjoy hearing your selections if you feel like commenting. February can be a cold month so I hope these posts can a warm the cockles of a few hearts.

To find out more about David Constantine see the British Council Literature Matters page.