Bill Long 12/25/04
Rereading an Old Favorite
As I age I have noted a peculiarity shared by me and my friends. We seem to remember the first lines of so many old songs and poems, and maybe even the second line, but by the time we get into the body of the poem/song, we largely forget the words. Yet, I have tried to discipline myself over the years to ferret out meaning from the less obtrusive parts of poems, feeling perhaps that only when a poet really gets going is s/he free to let the Muses fully blow in the soul.
This thought returned recently to me when I was writing about the old favorite love poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "How do I love thee?" in one of my Even More Words essays. Everyone knows the first line of the poem: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." I would say, however, that there is a precipitous decline in knowledge of the poem after that line, even though possibly 20% of people know lines 2-4: "I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/ My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight/ For the ends of Being and ideal Grace." Memory stops remembering probably near the end of line 4 because the phrase "ends of Being and ideal Grace" has such a 19th century ring to it that it sort of cuts off people's interest in going further.
In other words, if you go further in your memorization/learning of the poem, you have to expend some effort, some actual time where the TV isn't blaring, where the kids aren't screaming and where you say to yourself, "I will spend some time being quiet and learning something." That is why most people never get to lines 5-14. They never learn all the ways she loves.
But I decided to devote this and the next mini-essay to writing about four of those lines, lines 9-12. In these lines Browning reaches rare heights of insight into the ability of love to conquer the "many waters" (in the words of the Song of Solomon) that flood and threaten to overwhelm us. Let's listen to those words anew today.
After stating a few additional ways in which she loves (5-8), she says:
"I love thee with the passion put to use/ In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith./ I love thee with a love I seemed to lose/ With my lost saints.... (9-12a)."
Three aspects of love come out to me from these lines. First there is the strength of love's intensity, then the suppleness of love's innocence and finally the significance of love's idealization. Each calls for comment.
1. First, she loves with the strength of love's intensity. She loves "with the passion put to use/ In my old griefs." Think of the "old griefs" that we have had in life. There is love lost, either through our choice or other's actions. There are relationships severed, deaths experienced, failures endured, arrows of humiliation suffered, disappointments tolerated. There are estrangements which we wish never happened but which we do not know how to repair.
The old griefs of our lives bring forth in our heart a variety of emotions, from the feeling of being overwhelmed, to anger, bitterness, resentment, grief, regret, shame and humiliation. We spent and continue to spend so much passion on the old griefs. We nurture and feed them, as if they are an insistent mouth at the table. Some of these griefs never seem to leave us, and sometimes they imprison us. One of the reasons I have studied the Book of Job in depth over several years is because I believe it to be the finest discussion of the layered emotional experience of loss and hope that I have run across. It sings with the energy of one who puts in passions to use in his griefs.
A Joban Interlude
But Job is remarkable because he puts his passions to use both in past/present griefs and past blessings. A vivid passage from Job that shows him putting his passion to work on old blessings is in Job 29-31. Chapter 29 is a part of this last of Job's speeches in which gives the peroration to all his speeches in defense of his innocence. He cannot help but ransack the memory to speak about his sense of personal uprightness (ch. 31), but before he gets to self-justification, he puts his passions to use in longing. Listen to the intensity of Job's longing:
"Oh that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me; When his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness; As I was in the days of my youth, when the secret of God was upon my tabernacle (Job 29:2-4, KJV)."
Job is putting his passion to use in his old blessings, in contrast to putting them to use in old griefs. Yet the intensity is similar.
Back to Browning
But notice how Browning uses her past griefs. She transmutes them into love or, otherwise said, she calls upon that huge reservoir of energy expended on the old griefs and says, 'I love thee with that same amount of energy, nay, with that same energy I spent on all those old griefs.' Energy is being transformed by the power of love.
No longer is energy focused on the what ifs and the shattered shards of sentiment and self-respect that went skittering across the tiled floors of our past. Energy now is focused on loving. "I love thee with the passion put to use/ In my old griefs" is a profound and moving statement of hope for it says that the beloved, rather than the past, is the focus of our love.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long