The details of my quite marginal stabs at sonnetering aside, I did notice after I got a few under my belt an interesting paradox. In my practice as a philosopher, my undying enemy was undoubtedly the appearance/reality distinction, that wholesale metaphysical splicing of experience between what seems and what is. One variation on the Platonic theme is in our conceptualization of language. For Platonists, there is a distance between our words and the true essence of our words. This creates the sense that our language, our verbal meanderings through life, are driven around the attempt to capture something--essence, reality, what we really want to say.
I like to call this the picture of language as a pirate. Language is, however, not a pirate (see this post). So I say as a philosopher, yet in my practice as a poet, writing to a young maid, so mild, of pillows and petunias, in my effort to engineer verse and metaphor around the libidinal energies of Venus and Adonis, I seemed inexorably drawn to the exact pathos of distance I decry just about everywhere else. It was a curiosity at first, but it began to build. I mean, it is a pretty obvious trope to reach for--I love you so much that my words are no match for it. And it's perfect for the hack--don't worry, sweetness, tho my verse doth sucketh, no wit could capture my love for you. It's the perfect escape hatch.
I've come to see, however, a commonality in love poetry, i.e. the sonnet. It was with pleasant surprise that, in stumbling upon the history of English verse, I saw it employing the same tropes I was using. Alas, no real surprise as our subject material is universal, and reading the masters work their way through the ropes and tropes of love has helped deepen some of the dim apprehensions I've had of the scope of Western literature.
I've thought for some time, though held my tongue in saying, that at the very root of Western thinking is the notion of unrequited love. Two things to chew on in lieu of my sorely lacking background: 1) the Bible can easily be read as a story of unrequited love (God loves us, we spurn him, He hits us, we totter off, He eventually comes back around, tries to love us again, we spurn him again, He hits us, we cry, He says He's sorry, we apologize--this goes on for the length of the Tanakh, with less and less frequency, until finally God gives up, kicks a bad habit, and kisses us good-bye with the birth of Jesus) and 2) love quite probably lies at the heart of Plato's thinking, certainly in his relation to Socrates, and nobody who reads the Phaedrus will doubt that that dialogue has been less than consummately transcribed into our canonized way of thinking of the Greeks, at least through the eyes of self-styled philosophers.
Sonnet means "little song" and we anglophones, over-taught by Shakespeare, think that it naturally is about love. And so it was from its inception in Petrarch. Our intuition isn't off, but what was new to me, and in retrospect again self-satisfyingly surprising and yet not really surprising at all, was that Petrarch, who either originated the sonnet or popularized this Italian form, wrote not just about love, but about unrequited love. It seems that Petrarch's beautiful Laura, the eternal object of his lifelong sequence, the muse to which he rhythmed and hymned, was married. So, Petrarch's love, between her marriage and, well, him being a priest, was pretty much total fantasy.
What I've noticed is that in love poetry, particularly early love poetry, the feeling of love is created by an act of substitution. The pathos of love isn't created by saying, "I love you so much," it is created by similes: "My love is like...." Metaphor drives love poetry, like all poetry, and the peculiar path it takes is generally of substituting other emotions for the emotion of love. In particular: pain. Various kinds of pathos-generating distances are created and exploited by calling them "love." To make this a little more concrete, I'd like to consider Sir Phillip Sidney's sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella. The very first sonnet goes like this:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,The first line of the poem sets up both the sonnet and the whole sequence: "Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show". What is set is a dichotomy between loving and wishing (“fain”) and, more importantly, truth and verse. A distance is created between the truth of his love for "her" and his ability to express it—he wishes his poetry were able to show his love. The distance between truth and expression creates a pathos that Sidney is able to employ to generate the intensity of love. The pathos of distance is extraordinarily flexible and able to take on many guises in the constellation between love, truth, and language: truth/expression (can words adequately express my feelings?), truth/poetry (can poetry convey truth?), inner love/outward behavior (I do love her, but how can I show her?), etc. In all these cases, the pathos is able to stand in place of the Truth of Love. Poets like Sidney realized very early that love is not like an apple, to just be described, accurately or less accurately. Sidney, and in particular the poem’s persona, Astrophel, is able to generate in us the sense of how much he loves Stella by describing, not the love, but how difficult it is to describe the love and how much it pains him to fail in doing it. The pain (rhymes with “fain”) stands in for the love—“pleasure of my pain.” (ln. 2)
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay,
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite--
"Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart and write."
This first sonnet is quite funny. Opining on not knowing how to versify his love for her, Sidney enacts it by having nothing happen for much of it. The first quatrain doesn't even have a formal subject to throw a predicate on. The first one doesn't appear until the second quatrain, in line five: "I sought." Further, Sidney humorously struggles with other poets ("inventions" and "others' feet" referring to poems), as when he describes the "step-dame Study's blows," i.e. the teacher is beating him. So, so much pain.
This particular struggle, in fact, shows Sidney dealing with a subject that English poetry began struggling with full bore only in the Enlightenment--what Walter Jackson Bate called "the burden of the past" and Harold Bloom, in his stylish theory of poetry, the "anxiety of influence." The major narrative action in the poem is his studying of other poets, whose "feet still seemed but strangers in my way." With the onslaught of classical learning during the Renaissance, not only did intellectuals rejoice at great and wonderful ideas (as Thomas Moore did), but they also, at least those disposed to originality, began to feel the weight of tradition in a way that had previously been relatively rare. In the last line, we see Sidney taking a strategy that shows itself to be an ancestor to the Romantics, the turn inward. Which, in fact, creates another distance: your muse telling you to turn towards yourself--which means turning away from her. (Spenser will make fun of this in the Faerie Queen when the witch of Book 3, Canto 8, creates a fake Florimell to pacify her son. This "snowy" Florimell is in all other respects just like Florimell, but it is run by a male sprite. Which begs us to ask the question, "Why is a dude running the automaton woman?" Spenser is making fun of the consequence of the Petrarchean convention of dude-poets creating their own female objects of love. "Are our Muses really the women, or are we necessarily making that up, too?")
Another example, Sonnet 47:
What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?The 47th sonnet continues the identification of pain with love that had begun in the first sonnet of the sequence. Sidney, again, creates this identification to make the intensity of his pain correlate to the intensity of his love. This poem, in fact, elaborately goes on for its entire length without mentioning love as its object until the final couplet (though its place in a love sequence and the sonnet form’s almost exclusive use in the unrequited love thematic at this point in history gives the reader from the beginning its sense), the form's "answer" to the three quatrains' "problem."
Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
In my free side? or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
Or want I sense to feel my misery?
Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have,
Who for long faith, though daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary?
Virtue awake, beauty but beauty is;
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.
Let her go! Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
Unkind, I love you not. Oh me, that eye
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.
The first quatrain uses slavery as its image of pain. Sidney sets the stage by wondering if he has "betrayed" his freedom (a freedom that he is assumed to have had, in classic English form). Sidney receives a flogging from "those black beams," her eyes carving into him mark of ownership. Sidney explicitly evokes being "born a slave" before yoking it to "tyranny," which itself casts the slave as an unjustly subjugated servant in the face of our native liberty—a kind of political remark in the midst of further intensifying his pain.
The second quatrain forwards a different reason for his pain: "Or want I sense to feel my misery?" "Sense" plays twice, once on "good sense," a lack in reason which casts Sidney as stupid-in-love, but also on reason's opposite, a perceptual organ, making Sidney simply incapable of feeling his misery. In this quatrain, Sidney not only does not receive help ("alms") for his failings, but is scorned for asking, being cast as "beggary."
The third quatrain shows Sidney's turn inward, as outside help is not forthcoming. He demands that his virtue awaken and the five times repeated "I" solidifies his inward turn, conversing with himself over what to do. What he must do is leave, though as it happens he doesn't actually leave until after, perhaps, a kiss, that which, given his effort to unshackle himself from the tyranny of his love for her, would have been a "gain to miss."
But she appears again at the end of the third quatrain, showing the poem to be a silent stew in solitude, the pain of his misery appearing because of her absence—for when she shows, he cries out inwardly in defiance that he loves her not, but despairs in the finale that the mere sight of her causes his love to swell and make him tell, what otherwise in solitude is, a lie—the verbalized, "I love you."
The effects in this poem are all given over to creating that context of pain, indeed through the pathos of distance. The final couplet's answer is that distance from her causes the pain of love because it makes him aware of the deadening effect of her presence on his misery, which heightens the correlative intensity of love through the intense pain—I am so in love with you that I am helpless to control myself: a slave to your will in your presence and a beggar for relief from the pain of your absence. This paradoxical helplessness negates his entire claim to autonomy, to the liberty evoked in the first line.
This use of various distances to create pathos remind me of something Rorty once said about contemporary philosophy. Talking about the lack of respect analytics feel about Continentals, and Continentals for analytics, Rorty said that instead of thinking that what the other is doing is not philosophy, analytics should say, "'There is a lot about philosophy that I don't know.' This is also what should be said by Continental philosophers who are repelled by the technicality - the lack of romance, drama, and verve - when they pick up a book by Searle, Rawls, Davidson, Dennett, or Putnam."(Rorty and His Critics, 148) I understand this remark a lot better now. Romance is created by rhetorical distances. In the genre of literature of that name, narrative distance between the quest's beginning and end. In Platonism, between appearance and reality. In Continental philosophy, romance is typically created by what Nietzsche called "the pathos of historical distance." In life, by the distance between people.
That romance is created by distance explains a lot about love poetry and about the love we commonly find in life. The excitement we feel when love's breath is at the nape of our neck is like the energy of a magnet. Too far away, there's no pull, no energy. Get closer, however, and the pull begins, and the closer you get, the more powerful it becomes until you're snapped together--and you don't feel the energy anymore. The dynamism of love, whether of each other, or of God, is created by distances.