When you study the Western conception of Love throughout the ages, you quickly realize that the loving feeling is usually depicted as painful. Consider Cupid: he causes people to fall in love by piercing them with arrows. The Greeks used this explanation to account for the “piercing” feeling one feels when falling in love: it is sharp and not at all happy.
Ecce deus fortior me
One of the earliest writers outside of the ancient world to depict love as painful is Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321), best known as the composer of the epic Divine Comedy. What most fail to realize — mainly because they have never bothered to read the poem — is that Dante embarks on his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually Paradise just to see the woman he had loved hopelessly for decades. Hence, the splendidly snarky “Book-A-Minute” version of the Inferno:
Some woman puts Dante through Hell. THE END.
Dante first introduces us to his anguishing unrequited love in La Vita Nuova, or The New Life, in which he mingles poetry and prose to describe the exhilaration of first meeting Beatrice, the pain of her arranged marriage to another man, and the devastation of the news of her early death. Apparently, Dante and Beatrice met when they he was nine and she eight, and for Dante it was love at first sight; but they lived apart and in different social spheres, so Beatrice eventually married someone else, a banker named Simone dei Bardi, in 1287. She died three years later at the age of twenty-four. According to Dante, they crossed paths only once after childhood, in the streets of Florence approximately eight years before.
During this purported meeting, Beatrice merely greeted Dante, after which Dante went home and dreamed of her. This dream became the basis for the first sonnet in La Vita Nuova.
Dante describes the “pain” of this obsessive love for Beatrice beginning at their first meeting:
At that moment I say truly that the vital spirit, that which lives in the most secret chamber of the heart began to tremble so violently that I felt it fiercely in the least pulsation, and, trembling, it uttered these words: ‘Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur michi: Behold a god more powerful than I, who, coming, will rule over me.’ At that moment the animal spirit, that which lives in the high chamber to which all the spirits of the senses carry their perceptions, began to wonder deeply at it, and, speaking especially to the spirit of sight, spoke these words: ‘Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra: Now your blessedness appears.’ At that moment the natural spirit, that which lives in the part where our food is delivered, began to weep, and weeping said these words: ‘Heu miser, quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps!: Oh misery, since I will often be troubled from now on!’
(La Vita Nuova, Chapter II; translated by A.S Kline)
Notice the word choices there: his “heart began to tremble so violently that [he] felt it fiercely in the least pulsation”; he was trembling; his natural spirit “began to weep“; and he addresses misery directly at the end. Certainly, this is not what love has come to mean for our contemporary pop culture. Dante’s Love (capital “L”) is a god that dominates his soul and brings him only suffering. Not merely an extension of the Greeks’ mythology, this god is figuration used by Dante to depict the brutality of Love. He never conquered this dominating god in his lifetime, though he did marry another woman, Gemma di Manetto Donati. Unfortunately for Gemma, however, Dante only wrote about Beatrice: he does not once mention his lawful wife in any of his poems. You can understand, therefore, why Gemma did not accompany her husband when he was exiled from Florence for political reasons in 1302. Indeed, I cannot imagine, with Dante’s obsession of Beatrice, that the Alighieri-Donati union was an altogether happy one, though it did yield four children.
Undone by sorrow
Dante’s obsessive poeticism of Beatrice was not unique: in fact, it comes as part of a tradition that precedes Dante by about two hundred years. Though the term “courtly love” was not used popularly until the 19th century, the practice had been acknowledged, performed, and upheld since at least the 11th century. The Dante-Beatrice model exemplifies the ideals of courtly love: a man expresses deep, yearning love for a woman whom he cannot attain physically. Generally, but not always, the woman was a higher social rank than the man: she might be, for instance, the wife of the male lover’s feudal lord. I should stress that the “love” shared between the courtly lovers was not physical, but simply emotional, for this type of love was rare in the arranged marriages among nobility in the medieval period. (Case in point: the Alighieri-Donati union.) Expressions of this semi-adulterous emotional love usually took the form of poetry and music, especially with the appearance of troubadours in the High Middle Ages.
These troubadours were poets and musicians who wrote and sang about a variety of topics, among them courtly love. The earliest troubadour we know of is William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126), who was excommunicated by the Church twice: once for tax fraud and another time for abducting a Viscountess named Dangereuse, the wife of one of his vassals in the Aquitanian feudal system. Understandably, Mrs. William IX, Philippa of Toulouse, was as upset as the Church about this abduction; but when ordered by a representative of the pope to return the aptly-named Viscountess to her husband, William allegedly responded, “Curls will grow on your pate before I part with the Viscountess.” (The papal representative, it seems, was bald. Touché, Monsieur Guillaume!) Humiliated, Philippa moved out and died alone at Fontevraud Abbey two years later. Women in the medieval period just couldn’t catch a break.
Despite William’s disrepute, he composed a body of courtly love-poetry that has been remembered more than his lascivious actions. Glancing at his poems, you can see the foundations of courtly love beginning to cement, as here in “Farai chansoneta nueva”:
Her skin is white as ivory;
no other’s in my history:
an urgent show of love for me
is needed to remove all doubt.
I’ll die now, by St. Gregory,
without a kiss, indoors or out.
What good, fair lady, will be done
if with your love you’d up and run?
perhaps you want to be a nun?
I tell you now, that I love you:
by sorrow I will be undone
unless my claim appeals to you.
(Translated by James H. Donalson)
Though the word choice is not as sophisticated or brutal as Dante’s, the idea of love being painful persists: he claims, for instance, that he will die without a kiss from his secret love, and later says that he will be “undone” by sorrow if his lady does not accept his “appeals”. In all fairness, William blatantly broke the rules of courtly love by straightforwardly kidnapping his lady fair, but later poets hardly paid attention to mundane history; the emotions of the poetry were much more memorable to them.
Noli me tangere
Dante was not the only famous Italian poet of the medieval period: his approximate contemporaries Petrarch (1304-1374) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) influenced later writers as well, though to a slightly lesser extent. Petrarch’s sonnets, for instance, were imitated by early English sonneteers like Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, and Boccaccio had a profound influence upon Chaucer. Like Dante, Petrarch had his own Beatrice, a woman named Laura, whom he loved but could not attain because she was married to another man. Petrarch’s painful loving experience was apparently as excruciating as Dante’s, for of his first seeing Laura he writes:
It was on that day when the sun’s ray
was darkened in pity for its Maker,
that I was captured, and did not defend myself,
because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady.
It did not seem to me to be a time to guard myself
against Love’s blows: so I went on
confident, unsuspecting; from that, my troubles
started, amongst the public sorrows.
Love discovered me all weaponless,
and opened the way to the heart through the eyes,
which are made the passageways and doors of tears:
so that it seems to me it does him little honour
to wound me with his arrow, in that state,
he not showing his bow at all to you who are armed.
(Canzoniere III; translated by A.S. Kline)
Again, the writer speaks of being attacked by Love (again capitalized), and the word choice conjures the familiar melancholic effect: the sunshine darkens “in pity,” and the eyes are described as being “the passageways and doors of tears.” Thomas Wyatt, whose Beatrice-figure was unfortunately the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, learned much from Petrarch’s sonnets and adapted them to English, as in his famous “Whoso List to Hunt”:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, helas! I may no more.
The vain travail hath worried me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means, my worried mind
Draw from the deer; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain;
And graven in diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild to hold, though I seem tame.”
Wyatt proclaims that he knows where a beautiful doe may be hunted, but also that the hunt itself is ever in vain since the deer cannot be caught. What is more intriguing is the reference to the diamond necklace around the hind’s neck, which reads, “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am” — that is, “Touch me not, for the King’s I am.” Given this surmise, it is quite clear that Wyatt was writing rather directly about his unrequitable love for Anne Boleyn, the short-term wife of Henry VIII, especially when you consider in addition the fact that Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower of London for supposed adultery with Anne. Tradition has it, in fact, that while Wyatt was imprisoned, he witnessed through his prison window Anne’s execution. That cannot have been a good feeling for him (or, for that matter, for Anne).
Boccaccio, the third major poet to come out of medieval Italy, composed, among other things, two lengthy poems called Il Filostrato and Teseida, both of which left an impression on a certain 12th-century diplomat-cum-writer, Geoffrey Chaucer. The former gave Chaucer Troilus and Criseyde and the latter, the story of Arcite and Palamon from The Knight’s Tale. In that story, those two characters vie for the love of Emily, a girl in the court of Theseus, the Duke of Athens. Not surprisingly, their feelings of love are painful. The two have been imprisoned by Theseus as prisoners of war, and it is in their cells that they first glimpse the girl:
Through a deep window set with many bars
Of mighty iron squared with massive spears,
[Palamon] chanced on Emily to cast his eye
And, as he did, he blenched and gave a cry
As though he had been stabbed, and to the heart.
And soon after:
Arcita chanced to see
This lady as she roamed there to and fro,
And, at the sight, her beauty hurt him so
That if [Palamon] had felt the wound before,
Arcite was hurt as much as he, or more,
And with a deep and piteous sigh he said:
“The freshness of her beauty strikes me dead,
Hers that I see, roaming in yonder place!”
(Translated by Nevill Coghill)
Like so many other literary personages before him, Palamon sees the girl he loves and instantly feels as though he has “been stabbed, and to the heart.” Similarly, Arcite feels as though her beauty kills him on the spot. Chaucer’s descriptions of the piercing sensation are no doubt residual through Boccaccio from the Greek myths of Cupid shooting lovers with arrows.
My love is a fever
The Greek myths (via Ovid), Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and likely even Wyatt all influenced the arable mind of young Will Shakespeare. From this poetic, love-as-pain tradition, Shakespeare took us to levels of unhappy loving emotion like never before, as in Sonnet 129:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
First, some anatomical definitions: the “expense of spirit” is male ejaculation, as “spirit” in Shakespeare’s time referred to, among other things, seminal fluid. That this is occurs “in a waste of shame” only solidifies this surmise. Also: the last word, “hell”, is here a pun, for it refers to the torment the speaker is going through, but also to vagina, as “hell” was slang for that organ in Elizabethan times. Thus, it makes sense to say that the “dream” of sexual satisfaction “leads men to this hell.”
But this poem’s intent is not merely to be bawdy and scandalize; pay attention to the speaker’s word choice: he goes beyond simple pain-imagery, though that is present, and in fact he bypasses mere love for the more base and immediate sensation of lust. Take together the lengthy progression of adjectives that describe this sensation: “perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust” — and those are just the modifiers of three words or fewer! This tormented language reveals that the speaker is guilty for having “meaningless” sex on the one hand, and yet desiring it still on the other. This is a complexity only glimpsed in writers before, and one only imitated since.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are far from all lust, however, and he certainly showcases the love-as-pain idea as masterfully as his predecessors, as in Sonnet 147 — one of the famous “Dark Lady” sonnets:
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
Desire, here, is beyond a mere piercing: Cupid’s arrow has struck its mark and festered into a disease; in short, to use Shakespeare’s own words, “Desire is death.” He also points out that reason does not — cannot — coexist with love in the splendid analogy of reason as his physician with the unwelcome and yet passionately longed for cure for his love-sickness. This physician, it seems, has had enough of his patient’s self-destructiveness and so “hath left.” Alone, longing for his love, and sick without aid, the speaker is experiencing the same turmoil as each of his love-sick predecessors. For him, love is not is a warm and happy feeling; for him, love is hell.
Straight to my heart
Let us jump ahead a few hundred years, to the late 20th century. Sting, singing as the front-man of the Police, moans,
Do I have to tell the story
Of the thousand rainy days since we first met?
It’s a big enough umbrella,
But it’s always me that ends up getting wet.
Though he finds that “every little she does is magic,” his love for her nevertheless brings only tears and melancholy. This story may be about a thousand days’ time — a thousand days, I should point out, not of sunshine, but of rain — but it is a story that has been told more than a thousand times before. This hardly renders Sting’s writing trite or unoriginal, however, for what these poets, from ancient times through even today, continue to pinpoint is a universal truth: to be in love is to be in pain.
So why do we all strive so wildly for love? It is, as Shakespeare says, because we long “For that which longer nurseth the disease” — we hope for those happy moments of being in love that cause us to forget the pain and subsequent melancholy that otherwise pervades our being in love. In essence, we love because we hope.
In the meantime, love is pain. Perfect romantic matches are few and far in between. Even Romeo and Juliet, the couple that popular culture wrongfully cites as our archetypal romantic pair, are a match made in lust, not love: their romance is based entirely on the other’s good looks. Harold Bloom points out, with a mixture of humor and horror, that the only happy marriage anywhere in Shakespeare is the Macbeths’, and certainly, married couples do not want to end up like them. Ultimately, poets obsess so much about the pain of love because happiness is boring and pain is interesting: a sad statement, but a true one. We learn best from sadness, after all, and thus the poetry of pain speaks much more clearly to us than the poetry of happiness.
And so, the love-as-pain tradition will continue on long after we have all passed. There will always be lovers that will always be smitten by someone else who may or may not share their feelings. The pain will flow and the happiness will be hoped for. Elsewhere in his repertoire, Sting created a battle cry for these lovers-in-pain, past, present, and future:
There are arrows in the air
Formed by lovers’ ancient art
That go straight to my heart.