Using evidence from the semester reading schedule (Sappho, Catullus, The 700 Songs of Hala, Petrarch, Louise Labe), what does literature from earlier periods of history teach us about love?
My essay argues that love is a universal constant regardless the era in which the text was written, therefore nothing is learned of love itself.
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I would appreciate feedback along with any critique on style, content, etc. Thanks!Love: The Universal Constant of Literature
The argument that the idea of love in modern literature differs conceptually from that of earlier periods is demonstrably false. Readers of literature from any era will find that although man characterizes love in many ways, the fundamental idea remains constant. Therefore, whether one reads the tender longing of Sappho, the unattainable desire of Petrarch, or the whimsical prose of Dickenson, the message of love in its myriad form remains the same. The concept of love particular to the piece of writing is equally a study of psychology, sociology and anthropology as it is a literary endeavor. We, as readers of literature, do not learn anything intrinsically different about love across eras, but rather how we, as humans, translate the timeless message of the many facets of love into literature and interpret its significance. Love as an idea, or theme does not change from text to text regardless of era, be it unrequited, lustful, the loss of, uninhibited, immoral, familial, religious, or otherwise.
For example, Sappho describes her insatiable desire for a woman, the pain of her refusal, and begs for release from the obsessive pursuit in the poem Rich-throned immortal Aphrodite
(562). Sappho is single-minded in her fixation and pleads with Aphrodite to make the woman hers. Sappho fears unbearable pain and sickness of a crushed heart otherwise. Similarly, yet no less powerful in emotion, is James Joyce's Araby
. The central character in Araby obsesses over a young girl who he loves dearly and has yet to reveal:
. . . a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires. (Joyce)
The concept of obsessive love is apparent in both texts and despite the centuries that have passed since Sappho's writings, the language Joyce uses to describe the boy's infatuation brings to mind Sappho's own obsession. In addition to the previously mentioned Sapphic poem, Joyce's Araby
is reminiscent of another poem by Sappho: He looks to me to be in heaven
. Compare the following:
. . . .
makes the heart leap in my breast;
for watching you a moment, speech fails me,
My tongue is paralyzed, at once
a light fire runs beneath my skin,
my eyes are blinded, and my ears drumming. (565, 5-9)
Each text describes in detail how their hearts respond, the loss of speech, and other physical maladies, (i.e.) body taught like a harp string, unseeing eyes, and drumming ears. It is as if the poems of Sappho were a direct inspiration for Joyce's Araby
. Comparable to Sappho's plea for release from the sickness of unrequited love in the poem Rich-throned immortal Aphrodite
, the Roman Catullus explores the misery of leaving a loved one and refers to it as a cancer (1248, 21) in a collection of his work entitled Poems
(1246). Clearly, in all of these cases, the effects of love for another on an individual have not changed in the more than two millennia between the writings of Sappho, Catullus, and Joyce.
Similar to obsessive love, literature about love that is lost is just as timeless. The melancholy that pervades the text is palpable in Countee Cullen's The Loss of Love
. Consider the final lines (21-24) of the poem:
I have no will to weep or sing,
No desire to pray or curse;
The loss of love is a terrible thing;
They lie who say that death is worse. (Cullen)
Compared to the second half of Petrarch's Canzoniere
(201) in which Petrarch mourns the loss of his Laura, the unmistakable sensation of loss and hopelessness is evident in both texts, despite the passage of more than 400 years between the writings. For example, in poem 277
, Petrarch writes:
and so bewildered, unconsoled my life
is totally, that night and day it weeps,
weary without a helm in stormy seas
on a dubious course with no true guide. (201, 5-8)
illustrates how lost and truly saddened to his core Petrarch feels by the death of his beloved Laura. Conversely, instead of melancholy and sadness, the Prakrit poem entitledHis form
- a part of the ancient Indian anthology The 700 Songs of Hala
(938) conjures imagery of a woman, despite the separation from her lover, content in the knowledge that he remains a part of her. Likewise, Louise Labé writes of grief and pain in the poem Lute, companion of my wretched state
(213). The final line "Still hoping for sweet outcome from sweet pain" (14) reveals Labé's half-hearted desire for a blissful end to her aching heart even though the sensation of pain is preferable to the absence of any feeling.
In summation, the powerful emotions invoked by love reveal no discernable difference in the effect it has on man regardless the period of the piece of literature. Therefore, one does not necessarily discover anything new about love. Instead, there is certain knowledge that love is enduring through the centuries with all its accompanying emotions and crosses political, language, philosophical, and religious boundaries. In short, love is an ageless universal constant. Works Cited
Cullen, Countee. "The Loss of Love". Old Poetry. Social Design.
Joyce, James. "Araby. " Online Literature. Jalic, Inc., n.d. Web.