Purple Roses by Cate Davies
It’s about eight or nine years ago, middle of a hot summer and I’m in the gutter, literally. Well my feet are anyway. The rest of me is sitting on the curb, outside a tavern in Baltimore, Maryland. I’ve been drinking and thinking about a woman, but at the moment my attention is on the poet at my feet, delirious and dying in the wrong clothes.
The poet is Edgar Allan Poe, and legend has it he was found in the gutter around here the night before he died. He may be more known for his macabre short stories, but he’s dying a poet’s death. He’s dying a lover’s death, out of favor with the gods. The harsh truth is that no matter what name she goes by – Venus, Aphrodite or even Rati, or Áine, she can be a real bitch. That goes for Pan and Cupid too.
I’ll eventually decide there are too many obstacles between myself and the lady in question, a decision which will bite me on the ass some years later. In short I gave up romantic love in hopes of finding a more pragmatic love.
Love is careless in its choosing
Sweeping over cross a baby
Love descends on those defenseless
Idiot love will spark the fusion
Inspirations have I none
Just to touch the flaming dove
All I have is my love of love
And love is not loving
David Bowie, Soul Love
And so approaches Valentine’s Day, the one day given over to love on the calendar. We don’t know much about St. Valentine, other than he was a martyr and gave us the rose as a symbol for love. There’s also a story where he heals a blind girl and leaves her a note on the day of his execution signed “your Valentine.” Which is likely as romantic as he got. He is a saint after all, and they’re not exactly known for their experiences in romantic love.
Oddly enough, romantic love is translated as love in the style of the Romans. It was the Romans that executed Saint Valentine, but romantic love hadn’t been born yet.
In the middle ages a group of authors among them Geoffrey Chaucer, decided that love needed a day to be celebrated, and chose February 14, which happened to be Saint Valentine’s feast day.
A few centuries earlier, British authors, writing in French had invented a new genre, revolving around chivalrous, often unrequited love, usually short on consummation. It took a few more centuries and Chaucer and his contemporaries to do that, but the tales still tended to turn out badly. Tales of knights overflowing with love for their lady, often the queen spoke of a hopeless longing. Happy endings weren’t part of the plot.
About the same time, advances in the printing press meant more books, literacy and love stories. It started a revolution. Till that point, love wasn’t a requirement prior to marriage. Love grew afterwards, if at all. Romantic literature gave people hope.
But if you were longing for romantic love, you weren’t likely to find it in marriage.
Secret love, unrequited love, love of boundless beauty and madness – it’s that longing that drives us to madness. Experts say that it’s the denial of consummation that drives this unnatural form of passion. The natural state they believe the only type of love that works for a lifetime, is that of quiet contentment, or as Thoreau wrote and I prefer to think of it, “lives of quiet desperation.”
Most people actually believe that a steady, constant love is better than the belief that your lady “doth make the stars burn bright.” Some people believe love like that is just for fantasy. Escapism.
Screw them. They obviously never stood looking up at Juliet’s balcony, after scaling the walls with love’s light wings, knowing that feeling of being willing to claw your way through a sea of broken glass to get to the object of your affection. We don’t want alienated from our love, we’re desperate to attain it, and then to grow it.
We don’t love like that for effect. We do it because it’s how we love. I pity the person who throws themselves into their business and dabbles half ass in their love.
There’s one point I’ll give the experts. Love needs obstacles to push lovers on. The easy route leads to contentment. The rocky road leads to bliss.
Or destruction. To be certain, a passionate, all consuming love typically flames out. We get a bit scorched, but usually recover, albeit scarred.
Poe wasn’t so lucky. In fact, luck and Poe didn’t go hand to hand in much at all. His mother died when Poe was two, and he never really got over it. His beloved Virginia died when he was thirty three. It seems any woman who found her way into Poe’s life also found a way out, quite via the coffin.
His tragedies gave us great poetry.
Though the truth of Poe’s dalliances with other women will never really be known, it appears that Poe followed the romantic ideal, in that most were never consummated. Poe drew inspiration from these women, they helped to drive his art. Perhaps he sensed that if they ever came fully to fruition, the fountain of inspiration would dry up.
Or perhaps he just had bad luck. His relationship with Sarah Helen Whitman reads like a Lou Reed song. Sarah was on paper at least, the type of woman you’d expect to attract the likes of Poe. She was into science, mesmerism, and the occult, had a tendency to wear black and often wore a coffin pendant around her neck. Surprisingly she was horrified by his writing but found herself growing attracted to the man, though they’d never met. She wrote a poem in his honor and he returned the favor. A correspondence began, and it’s so easy to fall in love through letters. It’s a direct line into the mind and soul.
They became engaged and that’s where things went south. A requirement of her accepting his hand was that he keep the rest of himself sober through the engagement.
He didn’t succeed.
Her mother withdrew her approval, though in truth it could have been because she heard that he was also pursuing two other women at the time. Rumors, lies, scandals – like I said, we’ll never know the truth. An anonymous letter delivered to Sarah telling of Poe being drunk brought about the final split.
It was written later that Poe took to the bottle to intentionally sabotage the engagement, but I don’t buy that. Partly because if he was unlucky in love, he was equally unlucky in finances. The marriage would have brought him stability and the freedom to write more.
But the hallmark of romantic love is you want it to succeed. You want to touch the flaming dove. So I choose to believe he wanted to make it work, but the gods moved the pieces on the chess board and Poe lost.
The writhing poet at my feet in that Baltimore gutter is engaged again, to another woman, but this time he’ll be dead in the morning. Like the earliest romances, Poe’s story didn’t end well.
But still we try.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
Some believe that those who love illicitly love best. To love the forbidden is to take a leap of faith and what is love if not a leap? Nothing convinces lovers of the rightness of something without impossibility being written into your love’s narrative.
To love in secret, between the shadow and the soul means your passion grows wild as within a hothouse or petrie dish … “I love you as the plant that never blooms but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers; thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance, risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.”
The romantic ideal spawns illicit love by nature – wild, passionate affairs that dig deep into people’s souls. They rise into the ether together and the lucky few manage to reach out and find each other there. As the obstacles build, love grows to overcome them. But it always grows dark before the storm.
“If the house of the world is dark, Love will find a way to create windows.”
It’s hope that drives us deeper into love … sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you are favored by the gods. Even Job got another chance after passing the test by watching his first family slaughtered by Jehovah and not holding a grudge over it.
When the curtains are drawn on love’s windows and the light streams in, perhaps it is possible to find contentment. But not if it means the abandoning of your abandonment. Not if it means loving less, loving within bounds, within reason. It’s a cruel, weird, wicked world, and madness is the natural response. To find your madness in love is the way of the way of the poet, the way of the romantic, the way of the lover.
Die! Die! Die in this love!
If you die in this love,Your soul will be renewed.
Die! Die! Don’t fear the death of that which is known
If you die to the temporal, You will become timeless.
The tears which are shed when love is lost, equals the amount of love attained when it was in full bloom. Romantics believe it’s worth the former to experience the latter.
By the nineteenth century, the conqueror worm had turned and love stories were having happy endings. Even Lady Chatterly managed to escape to the new world with her lover.
The woman on my mind as I sat there on the curb baking in the hot Baltimore sun will always be my Valentine, one day late. The lucky among us will find that one impossible love that inspires magic. Those who are even luckier, and who manage to survive the white heat of love’s tribulation might even keep that love.
I’ll always believe that in passion one finds contentment, and a perfect marriage between those two byproducts of love is the key to becoming whole.
As I watch Poe wriggling through the gutter in his death throes, I can’t help but believe that the love he felt probably made it all worth it.
Happy Valentine’s Day.