Say, What Is Love?

For years, decades, centuries, people have been striving to find the perfect definition for the complex and mind-boggling concept that is, ‘love’. But it seems that merely finding a definition is one challenge, truly understanding it is another.

As an English literature student I’m often forced into reading poetry, that’s not to say I don’t like it but to be quite honest, I wouldn’t choose it over a good novel. One theme that arises constantly in poetry, no matter what era it’s from or what gender the writer is, is ‘love’.

Shakespeare’s sonnets may be among some of the best known, and supposedly most romantic, examples. However after a little further analysis into Shakespeare’s influential ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?’ I couldn’t help but notice quite how unromantic it really was. The essential message in this poem is that Shakespeare’s work is so great that it will eternalise this woman, “so long lives this and this gives life to thee”. Perhaps as a modern reader I’m more inclined to be cynical but this just seems self-indulgent to me.

Although Sonnet 18 was written many years ago it still carries some relevance, and not simply because of who wrote it. Of course it was the controversial holiday that is Valentine’s day only a couple of weeks ago and as expected Instagram and various other social media sites were flooded with pictures of gifts and happy couples. Although this isn’t all bad and I’ve been guilty of it in the past, it does seem somewhat similar to the issue I have with Shakespeare.

Superficial may be the wrong word, but when did love become so competitive? As Shakespeare claims he’s giving this woman the gift of immortality through his penmanship, many people appear to be participating in a modern version of this. Showing off love merely through what you can give to one another. Naturally, just because one decides to share a photo of what their loved one bought them on V-day doesn’t mean they’re a bad person but I think our concept of love has become obstructed.

Recently I read Dorothy Parker’s beautifully ironic poem ‘One Perfect Rose’. Not to be taken literally, she claims she’d rather have a limousine than a single rose. Whilst simultaneously challenging the stereotypical emblem of a rose representing love, she also brings up issues of materialism. The reason I brought up Valentine’s day is because it seems if you want to show someone love it ought to be whenever you feel it, not some hallmark assigned day of the year.

Understandably love can be pretty confusing to try and define, let alone understand, but I do think it’s worth more than this competition and materialism it’s become. If someone doesn’t get you flowers on Valentine’s day that doesn’t mean they care for you any less, perhaps they didn’t know you wanted them in the first place?

Anyway, I’m beginning to feel like I’m erring on the side of grumpy single girl so I’ll move on. To me, love should be entirely exempt from the trivial and synthetic whims of everyday life. Love doesn’t even have to be what we think it is, love is not a bouquet of red roses, love can be your mum telling you to put on your seat belt or watching ‘Glee’ with your dad. Love is all around even when we aren’t aware of it, and I know that sounds cliché but unfortunately I think all too many people are forgetting that.

“Say what is love? To live in vain
To live and die and live again?
Say what is love? Is it to be
In prison still and still be free —
Or seem as free? Alone and prove
The hopeless hopes of real love?
Does real love on earth exist?
Tis like a sun beam on the mist,
That fades and nowhere will remain,
And nowhere is o’ertook again.
Say what is love? -– A blooming name,
A rose-leaf on the page of fame,
That blooms, then fades, to cheat no more,
And is what nothing was before?
Say what is love? Whate’er it be,
It centres, Mary, still with thee.”

– John Clare

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2 thoughts on “Say, What Is Love?

  1. I’ve read quite a few of your posts now and I really enjoy the analysis you give to big topics, such as this one. I have similar issues with the way we tend to view love as conditional and thus marked by materialism, when really love can be – arguably should be, unconditional. Perhaps not in actions but in feeling. It’s just that our self-serving society promotes a more narrow-minded view of people that marginalises empathy when really compassion should be given constantly.
    I like to think that’s where the immortality aspect comes from.

    P.s: thanks for the John Clare poem. I haven’t read his work in a while.

    Like

  2. I’m glad, half the time it just feels like I’m ranting about nothing! I agree, seems that love is often used as a bargain tool etc. I’m not actually a huge John Clare fan, but I do adore that poem!

    Like

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