Dante and Beatrice: Pondering unrequited love

I believe Dante and Beatrice were the ones who first made me really consider the idea of unrequited/unfulfilled love, or idealized love. If asked, I would probably define myself as a cynic (tho an optimistic one…a bit contradictory, I realize). I don’t consider myself a romantic, though I don’t have anything against romance either (my husband is a romantic and I appreciate this very much) (and I do find myself falling for romantic notions of “The Artist”). I’m not one to seek out love stories on the big screen, but I can enjoy one from time to time (the quirkier, the better). Back to Dante and Beatrice. During a class on Dante, the professor explained that Beatrice was Dante’s great love, though, it is believed, the two spoke only once (when they were children), and Beatrice died at a very young age (25, I think…maybe younger). They both married different people, but Dante considered Beatrice his great love, and his muse, and he immortalized her as the pilgrim’s guide to Heaven in the Divine Comedy. I’m fascinated by the apparent strength of his feelings for Beatrice, in spite of his limited contact with her. She was his muse for his lifetime. I assume it was the idea of her that he was in love with—that his imagination created this muse that inspired him to the heights he reached. And I can’t help but wonder whether the person he married ever came close to receiving the same level of adoration he gave to the idea of Beatrice (who can compete with such an idolized image)? Of course, I’m looking back on Dante’s love for Beatrice with a 21st century perspective, so it helps to remember what life was like in Dante’s time.

Then we have William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne. I learned about the two of them just last summer when I visited Dublin. At the Dublin writers museum, there is a brief bio on Yeats and it discusses his adoration of Gonne. If I remember correctly, he asked her to marry him several times, and she declined each proposal. What really stuck in my mind after reading the bio was the fact that, later in his life, he asked Gonne’s daughter to marry him. Wow, I thought, that is really…odd. Well, when it’s presented in such an abbreviated biography it sounds odd, but after visiting the National Library where there was an exhibit dedicated to Yeats’ life, I learned that it wasn’t quite as odd as it first seemed. Or, it seemed a little more reasonable to me when I had a better understanding of his relationship with Gonne and her family. The daughter said no to Yeats’ proposal as well. I was taken with the idea that WB Yeats (WB YEATS!) put himself out there to this woman, and was rejected, yet continued to idolize her. According to wikipedia, after asking Gonne’s daughter to marry him (and being rejected), he said to one of his friends “who am I, that I should not make a fool of myself”. I like this sentiment a great deal, particularly when coming from a poet like Yeats. It seems today (and maybe throughout history) there is a certain amount of fear of looking the fool if one’s advances are spurned, so I find Yeats’ willingness to keep trying, even after being rejected, quite charming.

So, here is to true love, to unrequited love, and to idealized love. May they inspire great happiness, great passion, and/or great art.

No Second Troy by William Butler Yeats (written after Gonne married Major John MacBride)

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

To his Coy Mistress (not a perfect fit with the theme of the post, but still…)
by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.


A portrait of O’Keefe by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz


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