Antoine Watteau – Sitting Couple – 1716

… and then the lover, sighing like furnace

There is a particular pleasure in matching a painting, or drawing, to the relevant age described in Jaques’ speech. This time it is exceptional. Jean-Antoine Watteau was 31 when in 1716 he made this sketch of one of his favourite models wearing what came to be called throughout Europe the “Watteau” dress. He was to die only five years later; but one can see how supremely gifted he was as a draughtsman.

Many of his earlier sketches were drawn in red and black chalk, but in 1715 he started experimenting with white chalk; the amazing result, a year later, is before you as you read. He inspired many later English artists, amongst whom was Turner.

Walter Pater, the Victorian essayist, commenting on his Watteau’s work, wrote “he was always a seeker after something in the world, that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all”. In it, there is a theatricality, a wistfulness and a sadness immediately evident at first sight. Could there be a better “curtain raiser” to an essay on “the lover”?

I have chosen a selection of poems to celebrate the tenderness of love – W.B. Yeats’ ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’; Love’s frustrations and delays – Andrew Marvell’s ode ‘To his Coy Mistress’; the profoundness of love – Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Lady’s Yes’; the intoxication of love – Florbela Espanca ‘Amar’ in translation; and, with tongue in cheek, the sentimentality of love – Fernando Pessoa writing as Álvaro de Campos in ‘Cartas de Amor’.

A veritable “dîner à deux” of love dishes, which shows the power of poetry to capture so many moods through so many poets’ verses.

Very often, when sensitivity has to be expressed in words, Yeats for me comes first. Earlier we found him writing about his infant daughter, born of the lady he married when Maud Gonne, whom he had courted so long, turned him down. This poem, wishing for the “cloths of heaven”, was written in 1899 at the beginning of their courtship, shortly after he had met Maud. I find the element of desired but unrequited love raises the “temperature of the furnace” and thus the beauty of this short poem immeasurably. “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams”.

In the film ‘West Side Story’, you may remember the scene where Maria goes back to the milliner’s shop, and she and Tony dress the mannequins as bride and groom as they sing “One Hand, One Heart”, “But I, being poor, have only my dreams”. In these eight lines, you have the essence of every thwarted love affair.

Andrew Marvell’s poem “To his Coy Mistress”, published posthumously in 1681, was at the front of my mind when I suggested this series. I have always loved the phrase “vegetable love”. Knowledge about vegetable production and plant breeding began in Carolean times, with the intention of feeding the burgeoning population of London. Add to this the “Carpe Diem” philosophy of Horace and set it in the “lockdown” times of the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and you have this unequalled poem; “But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”.

You can almost sense the lover in Watteau’s print speak “Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side. Shouldst rubies find” with the expansive circular flourish of the hand shown in the sketch, “I by the tide. Of Humber would complain” (Marvell’s father had been drowned in the river Humber).

Another poet of that period Robert Herrick, one of the Cavalier poets, begins his sonnet “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a-flying.”

Louis MacNeice’s “Mayfly” echoes this theme which we looked at this time last year.

If these entreaties were not enough to turn the lady’s head, then let him try the Grand Guignol of “The grave’s a fine and private place. But none, I think, do there embrace”. Could any lover try harder!

Elizabeth Barratt Browning, a very much appreciated Victorian poet (1806-1861), takes such banter in her stride in “The Lady’s Yes”. “Yes! I answered you last night. No!, this morning, Sir, I say”. From the hyperbole of the courtship, she moves on to the basis of what will be the long term success of a marriage based on love. “Learn to win a lady’s faith. Nobly, as the thing is high; By your truth she shall be true – Ever true, as wives of yore – And her Yes, once said to you, SHALL be Yes for evermore.”

The poem would make a good reading at a marriage service. In her famous sonnet 43 “How do I love thee”, she counts the ways “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach”. This is poetry describing the gold standard of matrimony!

Florbela Espanca, a Portuguese modernist poet born in Vila Viçosa in 1894, however, would have none of this. In her poem ‘Amar’, which is here in translation from a very good book “Lisbon Poets”, she flatly contradicts Browning. “Quem disser que se pode amar alguém durante a vida inteira é porque mente!” As one might expect, there is more fire in the original Portuguese. “Eu quero amar, amar perdidamente! Amar só por amar.”

Misunderstood and scorned by many in her own time, she now is very much read for her love poetry in Portugal. In December 1930, on her 36th birthday, she took her life, having been married three times. So often artistic brilliance lives at war with life’s daily demands.

One person who did understand and correspond with her was Fernando Pessoa. It is with his “Cartas de amor são ridículas” that we finish. He had a love affair with Ofélia Queiroz, in fact two love affairs, but they never married. He wrote to her once under the heteronym of Álvaro de Campos. His poem, written in 1935 under the same heteronym, I have left it in the Portuguese to do justice to its irony and sarcasm.

What it seeks to say is clear even without translation. He catalogues the irredeemably endearing yet stupid quality of love letters. “All love letters are ridiculous. And they wouldn’t be love letters if they weren’t. Ridiculous”; “The truth is that today, my memories of those love letters are the ones that are ridiculous”. His love letters were saved for posterity by Ofélia’s husband, whom she married after Pessoa had died.

Few can bear to throw love letters away. Even if they be from earlier generations and tucked away in a trunk in an attic. So, we come full circle to the theatricality and wistfulness Watteau evoked in his sketches, and of which Isabelle Aubret sang some two-and-a-half centuries later in the 1960s: “Un premier amour, premier amour, premier amour, ne s’oublie jamais”.

Next time we look up, we shall find the warm sunshine of young love, trapped behind the dark clouds of war. The mood changes; so will the poetry!

Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
By W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)

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.

To His Coy Mistress
By Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

The Lady’s Yes
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

“Yes!” I answered you last night;
“No!” this morning, Sir, I say!
Colours, seen by candle-light,
Will not look the same by day.

When the tabors played their best,
Lamps above, and laughs below —
Love me sounded like a jest,
Fit for Yes or fit for No!

Call me false, or call me free —
Vow, whatever light may shine,
No man on your face shall see
Any grief for change on mine.

Yet the sin is on us both —
Time to dance is not to woo —
Wooer light makes fickle troth —
Scorn of me recoils on you!

Learn to win a lady’s faith
Nobly, as the thing is high;
Bravely, as for life and death —
With a loyal gravity.

Lead her from the festive boards,
Point her to the starry skies,
Guard her, by your truthful words,
Pure from courtship’s flatteries.

By your truth she shall be true —
Ever true, as wives of yore —
And her Yes, once said to you,
SHALL be Yes for evermore.

To Love!
By Florbela Espanca (1894-1930)

I want to love, to be lost in love!
To love just to love: Here… there…
This one, that one, another one,
Everyone! To love and not love anyone!

Remember? Forget? It’s all the same!…
Hold on or let go? Wrong? Or right?
Those who say they can love someone
Their whole life long are telling a lie!

There is in every life a Spring.
When it flowers, it must be sung.
The voice God gave us is for singing!

If I must come to ashes, dust,
Nothing, then let my night be a dawn
And let me be lost… to find myself…

Translation of ‘Amar’ by Florbela Espanca – Lisbon Poets – Bilingual Edition

Todas as cartas de amor são ridículas
By Álvaro de Campos (Fernando Pessoa 1888-1935)

Todas as cartas de amor são

Não seriam cartas de amor se não fossem

Também escrevi em meu tempo cartas de amor,
Como as outras,
As cartas de amor, se há amor,
Têm de ser

Mas, afinal,
Só as criaturas que nunca escreveram
Cartas de amor
É que são

Quem me dera no tempo em que escrevia
Sem dar por isso
Cartas de amor

A verdade é que hoje
As minhas memórias
Dessas cartas de amor
É que são

(Todas as palavras esdrúxulas,
Como os sentimentos esdrúxulos,
São naturalmente

By Anthony Slingsby