To be honest, this blogger has never had much of an inclination towards romantic writing. Maybe the whole thing has been tainted by Mills and Boon and the recent turn towards so-called Mummy Porn, which gave the beleaguered bookselling industry a shot in the arm last year by dominating the bestsellers’ lists, but whose influence on long term reading habits is likely to be minimal.
Where I did enjoy romance was in the pastorals of Wordsworth – Tintern Abbey, although it may have had more to do with land than love, is possibly the best love poem I’ve ever read. Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” was delightful, but Shelley and Byron are a little tainted by the faithlessness of their biographies (although the relationship between fidelity and love is a whole other discussion) and the breathless sonnets of Shakespeare could be a little hard to take.
In latter decades much of the best love writing has taken place in song. It’s all subjective of course, but I’m not sure there’s a better relatively recent piece of romantic writing than Clifford T Ward’s Home Thoughts from Abroad, itself a riff on a Robert Browning poem about fields and thrushes.
Writing about love is a notoriously difficult thing to do well, of course. Many years have passed since the tempestuous affair of Henry Miller and Anais Nin created some intense and powerful love writing; anything bordering on sensual these days is as likely to end up competing for The Bad Sex Award.
As far as Irish love writing goes, I’m not sure I can come up with solid examples that could stand up against anything international. It seems we might do other things – place (both grounded and restless), character, introversion, narrative voice – much better than something like love and romantic openness. A line from the Scorsese film The Departed springs to mind – I think it was Matt Damon’s character, summing up his second-generation Irish father: “He’s Irish; he’ll put up with something being wrong for the rest of his life.”
Anyway, this has been a circuitous route to Seamus Heaney’s favourite love poem, written by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century, which was included in a Guardian piece first published last year.
William Wordsworth once wrote that he liked the sonnet because he was happy with the formal limits it imposed. He was ready to be “bound / Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground”. The great thing about this Thomas Wyatt sonnet, on the other hand, is the way the surge of desire seems to push against the form that “bounds” it, even as it obeys the requirements – 14 lines, octave and sestet, proper Petrarchan rhyme scheme.
“Whoso list to hunt” (an adaptation of a sonnet in Italian by Petrarch) is an allegory, but any suggestion of indirection or emotional distancing which that word contains is banished by the sheer pace and passion of the lines. The deer in the royal park, marked for the king (“Don’t touch me, I belong to Caesar”), has long been taken as a figure for Anne Boleyn, and Wyatt assumed to have been the lover/hunter denied all access to her. It is a great love poem because of its rhythmic energy, its syntactical drive, the way the bitter truths of denial and exclusion are transformed – transformed by creative stamina into a work that is lifted above bitterness by the artist’s joy in finding the right trope for his predicament. In a way, the final line retells the whole story: a wildness has been tamed in the writing, but it is the wildness that has given the poem its staying power.
“Whoso List to Hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more;
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.”
A couple of great lines there:
“In a net I seek to hold the wind.”
“Wild for to hold though I seem tame.”
So two questions for anyone who’s made it all the way to here (thanks, by the way):
What’s your favorite piece of love writing?
And which Irish writers do it really well?