Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Eugenides, Milton, and love

I've been reading Jeffrey Eugenides's anthology of love stories My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead, and while trying to think about the effects of love stories as compared to love songs - songs are closer to our heart, I think, not only because they are shorter and can be committed to memory but also because, as a lyric form, they take the shape of addresses from one person to another and allow us to insert ourselves into them, while stories, as a narrative form, may move us powerfully but nevertheless leave us feeling like observers - I thought of Milton's vision of his late wife "Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint", one of my favourite poems in the English language.

I don't think that in all of English poetry there is a pair of lines more plangent than those at the close of this sonnet ("But O as to embrace me she inclined, / I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night."), and in a very fine essay recently published in the Guardian Review, Claire Tomalin picks out some passages from Milton for close scrutiny, including these lines. She notes how "the softly worded 'O as to embrace me' invites you to expect a gentle follow-up, and instead comes a line of monosyllables like pistol shots. Even Shakespeare's sonnets sometimes slacken at the end, but this one rises to a climax, full of meaning and power."

And in a recent essay in the online edition of Poetry magazine, the poet and translator WS Merwin picks "Methought..." as one of his five favourite love poems alongside poems by Ben Jonson, Jaime Sabines, Stanley Kunitz, and Randall Jarrell. And in an older essay, the former American poet laureate Robert Pinsky chooses Milton's poem among his own favourite love poems.

I also disagree with Eugenides's contention that:

A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims - these are lucky eventualities but they aren't love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.
This seems a limiting view, and for this reason I have problems with some of the stories Eugenides has chosen, which don't seem to me to be love stories but stories about complicated relationships or about erotic tension, which are not the same thing. In fact, I can imagine several ways of writing a good love story that would not involve at least one cold heart or give love a bad name. Even warm hearts can have their misunderstandings, as in O Henry's anthology-favourite "The Gift of the Magi". As anyone who has given time and commitment to a relationship knows, mutual possession in love can be as unsettling and as complicated as no possession. In fact the real challenges of love lie in how one deals with possession, not with rejection.

And some old posts on love stories or philosophical works on love: On Anton Chekhov's "The Kiss" (Eugenides has gone for Chekhov's best-known love story "The Lady With The Little Dog"), "On Ilan Stavans's Love and Language", and "Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's language of love".

And two of my own favourite love poems: "Eyes" by Antonio Machado and "December, 1903" by Constantine Cavafy.


Shweta said...

What a quality post this is. It is always wonderful to read you Chandrahas. But when we get more than finely argued points, germane references, when we get in fact a bit of you, it is a rare pleasure. Thanks and congratulations for all the fine work.

Chandrahas said...

Shweta - Many thanks for your very kind words. You're quite right. A bit of me is very rarely to be found on this stage, as the work I am now immersed in is very taxing and requires all of me to be present there. Glad you seem to like everything you read here.

And in fact any one of these days there will be be another bit of me to be found here, but for the first time in my life I will be speaking in Italian.