“If love be so good, then whence cometh my woes?” Many hearts that pound with the beauty of love – both real and imagined – will reflect on their loves and woes with Geoffrey Chaucer. This is especially so in this season of long nights of loving and being loved. For it is the Valentines season, when black and red are the colours of love and the rose flower the symbol.
John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) would see it a little differently. Purple, he would say, is the colour of love, and lilacs the flowers. Remember where in Miller’s epic play Proctor looks out of the window in spring and explodes: “Lilacs have a purple smell. Lilac is the smell of nightfall.” And Proctor goes on to say that the night was made for loving, and purple is the colour of the night, the colour of love. The night of love has a purple smell. Purple or red, the season of love or – more to the point – the season of desiring to be loved is here. Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is regarded in literary studies as the father of English Literature. His collection of stories titled The Canterbury Tales is regarded as the beginning of English writing as we know it today. The stories are believed to have been shared by a group of Christian pilgrims journeying to Canterbury. The narratives are at once cheeky and hilarious. A recurrent feature is Chaucer’s abiding preoccupation with matters of the heart.
Matters of the heart are often attended by aches that defy the mind. Those who seek love and matrimony should thank the stars if they should get both. For, the great literatures of the world – from Chaucer to the present writer – the logic of love and marriage is a slippery one. The two have seldom been hosted in the same chamber. Hence, to some love is given and to others marriage. To most are only given hearts that pine for love, but never really get it. Hence, Chaucer may ask, “If love be so good, whence commeth my woes?”
If love is not requited, the heart that loves must accept the pain of rejection. It must accept to be lost in the unfathomable legend of loving without being loved back. As if he was thinking of this Chris Okigbo, easily Africa’s foremost poet, wrote, “Love Apart.” Here he said, “The moon has ascended between us; Between two pines that bow to each other; Love with the moon has ascended, fed on our solitary stems; And we are now shadows; That cling to each other; But kiss the air only.”
Okigbo’s “Love Apart” is a poem of heartache,” such as many a loving heart would pen in the season of love. Why the season of love? Should love not be eternal? Should not the tying of nuptial knots be the crowning glory of love and loving? Chaucer certainly set the pace for English writing and writing in English. He legitimised writing in English at a time when Latin and French were the languages of literature. At the same time, he set a thematic thrust for the romantic work of literature. It pointed towards mutual exclusiveness between love and nuptial knots. Hence his poetry is mainly plaintive, decrying rejection and abandonment. From “A ballad of complaint,” through “A complaint to his lady,” all the way to “A rondel of merciless beauty,” to dozens of rich poetic vintage, it is the story of the searching heart. Where two hearts meet, circumstances must separate them – often permanently. The narrative poem “Troilus and Criseyde” is credited with the origins of the aphorism, “All good things must come to an end.”
A pulsating relationship between two youth comes to a rude end as the maiden, Criseyde, is given away in exchange for a prisoner of war, in the legendary Trojan War. She leaves Troilus waiting and hurting. Way before he is killed on the war front, she accepts another lover, in her place of bondage. Chaucer suggests she is not an unfaithful woman. She is just a noble and faithful woman whose heart must continue loving. Accordingly, she will love that which she has found, in absence of that which she loves. You men, who think your women have betrayed you, please take note. She’s not stopped loving you. You are only absent; yet she must continue loving.
Subsequent writers in English and other languages, too, pick up this theme to great effect. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is at its core a story of obsessive love between the unmannered Heathcliff and the urbane Catherine – where the two love intensely but never get married. Catherine, instead, marries Hindley Earnshaw because it is socially convenient. Thomas Hardy’s Tess (Tess of the D’Urbervilles) eventually marries Angel Clare, the love of her life. But the marriage is never consummated. It breaks down on the first night. She is doomed to exchange intimacies with Alec D’Urberville, whom she has never loved. Hardy has many similar characters – The Return of the Native is rich in love tangos, betrayals and unrequited dreams. The same pains characterize the pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure – among others.
Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations is an outstanding epic in this regard. You will discover Miss Havisham whose dreams die on the day of her proposed wedding. You will also meet Pip whose undying love for Estella of the heart of ice burns to ashes.
In Russia, Tolstoy has given us Anna Karenina while in France Gustave Flaubert has Madam Bovary. Others are D H Lawrence Women in Love and Sons and Lovers; Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatraand of course, the mother of all of all unrequited romances, Romeo and Juliet.
There are indeed numerous other fine readings besides those selectively mentioned here. Why, love remains only an illusion! Hence there abound many out there who would say with the poet, “She is everything to me; the unrequited dream; A song that no one sings; The unattainable; She is a myth that I have to believe in . . . “ Patricia Williams of Essay Writing Place has advised us that love does not come from outside. Try finding it within yourself. Hold a conversation with yourself. Know who you are. Accept yourself. And make friendships with yourself, despite all of your flaws. When you have loved yourself, you are ready to love others. For you know how good it feels to be loved. Then, just then, you might get some meaningful returns – both in wedlock and without. Maybe. Happy Valentines and try purple, this time!