It isn’t merely love that’s blind. The love poet, too, can be heard stumbling and blundering about, sightless and ecstatic, as another Valentine’s Day dawns.
Robert Graves—these days, perhaps best known in the States for the novel “I, Claudius” but for me England’s premier twentieth-century love poet—is a case in point. Graves was typically a cool-eyed self-appraiser, but quite unreliable when love was his topic. In 1969, the year he turned seventy-four, Graves published a compilation, drawn from his earlier volumes, called “Poems About Love.” Some of these are beautiful and heartbreaking, others are reportorial and uninspiring, and I’m not sure he could tell the difference. He left out some jewels, and included some mushy mash-notes. A lovable lover, it seems that the very subject of love was so galvanic, so consuming, that he couldn’t make discriminations within it.
If the love poets of the twentieth century left a vacuum, critics have rushed in to fill it. Poems are deemed love poems not so much for what they say as for when they said it—the conditions underlying the poem’s creation. Elizabeth Bishop’s superb “A Cold Spring” is a prime example. I’ve seen it referred to as a love poem, though the “you” in the poem is not an obvious inamorata but the owner of the poem’s setting, the Maryland farm from which Bishop observes the natural world with such tender exactitude. Some of Bishop’s critics have seen the poem’s unfolding warmth as erotic—a celebration of her lesbianism—and, certainly, the poem’s gorgeous imagery (fireflies ascending like champagne bubbles) might herald the elongating outlook of someone newly in love. Or it might not. The poet’s epigram (“Nothing is so beautiful as spring”) comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins, who found ecstasies in God’s creation independent of carnal appetite. In any event, Bishop’s sentiments are far removed from conventional notions of the love poet as someone who, ostentatiously throwing caution to the wind, like Graves, cries his passion to the moon and stars.
Graves’s best-known love poem—perhaps his best-known poem—is the miniature “Love Without Hope.” A miracle of concision, it manages in four lines to encapsulate much of Graves’s imprudent magnificence, his outsize, foolish gallantry:
Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.