Andrew Marvell and His Coy Mistress

Andrew Marvell
Andrew Marvell

Today is the birthday of Andrew Marvell (March 31,1621 – August 16,1678), the author of one of the most anthologized love poems, To His Coy Mistress. I love the poem. I saw it described somewhere as a lover asking a virgin to sleep with him. But that is overlooking its wit, its playfulness, its ardour. It’s importunate, urgent, passionate, the way you are when you fall in love, when you constantly think, want to be with and hold your lover and say how much you adore her.

Unabashed, uninhibited, the poem is an unrestrained call for lovemaking, frankly dwelling with feverish anticipation on the eyes and breasts, virginity and dewy skin of the beauty the lover wants to embrace in sheer ecstasy.

Sensual, hedonistic, carnal — the poem is all that, but driving this sexual longing is a sobering thought, mortality. Let’s make the most of the time we have before we die, the poet says, because
“The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.”Continue reading “Andrew Marvell and His Coy Mistress”

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: About Jane Austen

Janeites will love A Truth Universally Acknowledged, a collection of essays by 33 famous writers and critics acknowledging the genius of Jane Austen.

Her admirers will have the pleasure of discovering their feelings shared by writers like Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Somerset Maugham, CS Lewis, JB Priestley, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, David Lodge and critics like Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom. Kudos to the editor, Susannah Carson, who brought them together in this book.

Martin Amis

Martin Amis speaks for us all when he tries to pin down the appeal of Pride and Prejudice:

For example, why does the reader yearn with such helpless fervour for the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy?

Elizabeth, of course, is very attractive. To quote Amis,

Elizabeth Bennet is Jane Austen with added spirit, with subversive passion, and, above all else, with looks.

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Justine: Lawrence Durrell’s romantic classic

Love — wanton, all-consuming, passionate love — is the theme of Lawrence Durrell’s classic romantic novel, Justine, set in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Two couples are inexorably drawn to each other in a romantic entanglement that ends in death and separation and the birth of a girl who finds a home with the narrator, the English schoolmaster Darley. She is the motherless child of the woman who loved him, by the husband of the woman he loved.

Sounds complicated?

Such are the toils of love when the woman at the centre is Justine — the beautiful, imperious, elusive Jewess, Justine, who, the narrator learns from an autobiographical novel written by her former French Albanian husband, can never give or take satisfaction in love because every time she has sex with a lover, she re-imagines being seduced as a young girl by a relative.

But that makes her no less desirable to the narrator and her present husband, “Prince” Nessim, a Coptic merchant prince, who are both hopelessly in love with her.

Others pay the price. The husband has his revenge — or so it is believed — on the relative, who dies in a duckshoot accident.

And the other victim is Melissa. Sweet Melissa. The Greek cabaret dancer who loved the narrator unconditionally — and knew, though they stayed together, Justine was the woman he loved.

But, instead of leaving him, she told Nessim about the affair he was having with his wife.

That was how she ended up having a baby by Nessim — two dejected lovers seeking consolation in each other.

Continue reading “Justine: Lawrence Durrell’s romantic classic”

Marry Me: Bittersweet Updike

Can anyone write like John Updike? He could make even adultery lyrical.

He does not turn a blind eye to the toll it takes. The lovers are exposed for what they are — cheating on their spouses and neglecting their little children. But Updike’s powerful prose captures the irresistible magnetism that drives two married people headlong into love.

No book could have a more romantic title than Marry Me.

But it is Updike the sensuous moralist’s bittersweet cautionary tale about the temptations that could ruin a marriage.

Jerry wants to marry Sally, and she wants him.

And when her husband, Richard, finds out, he does not stand in their way.

Instead he threatens to sue Jerry unless he marries her. He wants Jerry to pay for alienating her affections from him.

But Ruth is not letting go of Jerry.

She has broken up with Richard, an affair about which Jerry and Sally know nothing.

There are no innocents in this early 1960s extramarital romance except the little children. Whiny, sulky, helpless little brats who have to be fed and bathed and taken out to play while their parents think of separating.

Ruth tells Jerry he can’t walk out on them — and there are moments when he also thinks he can’t.

He is caught in a terrible bind, yearning for Sally, but his conscience won’t let him go unless Ruth sets him free.

The scenes where they discuss breaking up and then sleep in the same bed or engage in other intimacies show how complex marriage can be.

But Updike is at his best in the early part when Jerry and Sally are rapturously in love, undetected by their spouses.

Here they are making love on a desolate beach in the afternoon.

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Shakespeare in love: The youth and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets

Shakespeare’s sonnets are the greatest love poems in English literature, says The Times. And they are mostly homoerotic, says Bill Bryson in his book, Shakespeare.

That makes them all the more remarkable. For, let’s not forget, as late as 1960 Penguin Books was tried for obscenity when it published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, on the other hand, have been appearing in popular anthologies like Palgrave’s Golden Treasury since the 19th century. Book 1, containing poems selected by Palgrave himself in 1861, included Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) and Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”). Both are addressed to a young man. No doubt they are beautiful poems. Sonnet 18 especially.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

The poet praises the incomparable beauty of the person he is addressing who, he says, will be immortalized by his verse. But he doesn’t say who he is speaking to — whether it’s a man or a woman.

He is equally vague in Sonnet 116, my favourite.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Continue reading “Shakespeare in love: The youth and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets”

Love poems by Brian Patten

It’s Valentine’s Day. So here are love poems as simple and heart-felt as the finest love songs. Brian Patten knows how to touch hearts and minds. The Mersey Sound, a slim Penguin paperback featuring poems by him, Adrian Henri and Roger McGough published in 1967, is one of the bestselling poetry anthologies of all time, according to Wikipedia. Patten is still good as ever. Visit his website for updates.

Someone’s Coming Back
By Brian Patten

Now that the summer has emptied
and laughter’s warned against possessions
and the swans have drifted from the rivers,
like one coming back from a long journey
no longer certain of his country
or of its tangled past and sorrows,
I am wanting to return to you.

When love affairs can no longer be distinguished from song
and the warm petals drop without regret,
and our pasts are hung in a dream of ruins,
I am wanting to come near to you.

For now the lark’s song has grown visible
and all that was dark is ever possible,
and the morning grabs me by the heart and screams,
‘O taste me! Taste me please!’

And so I taste. And the tongue is nude,
and eyes awake; the clear blood hums
a tune to which the world might dance;
and love which often lived in vaguer forms
bubbles up through sorrow and laughing, screams:
‘Oh taste me! Taste me please!’

By Brian Patten

Dressed you are a different creature.
Dressed you are polite, are discreet and full of friendships,
Dressed you are almost serious.
You talk of the world and of all its disasters
As if they really moved you.
Dressed you hold on to illusions.

The wardrobes are full of disguises,
The dress to be unbuttoned only in darkness,
The dress that seems always about to fall from you,
The touch-me-not dress, the how-expensive dress,
The dress slung on without caring.
Dressed you are a different creature.

You are indignant of the eyes upon you,
The eyes that crawl over you.
That feed on the bits you’ve allowed
To be naked.
Dressed you are imprisoned in labels,
You are cocooned in fashions,
Dressed you are a different creature.

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James Fenton on Paris

Poems can be sexy and fun. Like this poem by James Fenton. I first read James Fenton way back when in the New Statesman. But let’s get on with the poem.

In Paris With You
By James Fenton

Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve drowned a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded
I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
But I’m in Paris with you.

Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess that I’ve been through
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.

Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre,
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysees
And remain here in this sleazy 
Old hotel room
Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.

Continue reading “James Fenton on Paris”