Let’s face it — poets are hard to love. I don’t mean it’s hard to love reading them; if you’ve followed this column for the past year, then you know I think it’s easy to love poetry. But try loving someone who didn’t pay the rent last month because he wrote a sonnet on the back of the check instead. It’s not easy to enjoy mundane reality with someone whose energy is so often committed to the imagination. Maybe that’s why poets tend to fall in love with other poets: Only the misunderstood understand the misunderstood.
Things often go badly when poets love poets. No matter how many times they read the warnings of sad love poems, they still fall in love with the people who write sad love poems. They won’t listen. It’s like trying to tell a teenager that he might someday regret having the lyrics to “Jimi Thing” tattooed on his back.
Even if poets’ relationships with each other don’t last, the work they write about each other can. We read those poems expecting the home fires to burn in their language, too. That’s certainly true of the poems from the broken marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The poetry mega-couple of the twentieth century, Plath and Hughes are Brangelina for Norton Anthology readers.
I don’t know a book of poems more urgent than Plath’s “Ariel.” Plath wrote these poems, which she called “the best … of her life,” in the winter of 1962 to 1963, after Hughes had left her for another woman and before her suicide that February. The wrested restraint of her first book, “The Colossus,” gave way to potent emotion. From “Lady Lazarus”: “Beware / Beware. / Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”
Hughes remained almost silent on the matter of Plath until the publication of “Birthday Letters” in 1998, the year of his own death. In “Visit,” he writes, “I look up — as if to meet your voice / With all its urgent future / That has burst in on me. Then look back / At the book of the printed words. / You are ten years dead. It is only a story. / Your story. My story.”
If the intervening years allow Hughes perspective, it is the perspective of the full scope of loss.
It was no easier 200 years ago either, in the intersecting lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon (Lord) Byron, Mary Godwin (later Shelley) and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. Percy Shelley was married when he began an affair with Godwin (his teacher’s daughter), assisted by Clairmont, who herself may have been involved with Shelley. Later, Clairmont became infatuated with Byron, adding a fourth person to this literary precursor to “The Real World.”
While spending the summer of 1816 together in Switzerland, Mary Shelley began writing “Frankenstein.” Byron worked on his narrative “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”: “’Tis to create, and in creating live / A being more intense, that we endow / With form our fancy …” A year later, Shelley wrote “To Constantia, Singing,” widely read as an address to Clairmont: “My brain is wild, my breath comes quick— / The blood is listening in my frame / … I am dissolved in these consuming ecstasies.”
Byron fathered a daughter with Clairmont, but their relationship had soured so much that he agreed to raise her himself if Clairmont would leave him alone. Percy Shelley drowned in 1822, and a fever claimed Byron in 1824. Their poems endured, but Clairmont had the last word nearly 200 years later. Scholar Daisy Hay recently discovered a memoir in which Clairmont writes, “I saw the two first poets of England … become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery.” That’s a bad breakup.
There are exceptions. Robert Browning fell in love with the poems of Elizabeth Barrett, six years his elder, and courted her in letters and secret meetings. During their courtship, Barrett wrote some of her most famous work, including “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” in one of which she says, “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose / With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears, of all my life! …”
Despite her family’s disapproval, Browning and Barrett married in 1846 and lived together in apparent happiness until Barrett’s death in 1861. That year, Browning wrote “Prospice” (a Latin imperative meaning “look ahead”) in elegy for his wife and in defiance of death. “I was ever a fighter,” he writes, “so — one fight more …” The bereaved husband refuses to fear death; instead he imagines, “a peace out of pain, / Then a light, then thy breast, / O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again …”
That said, I must emphasize: Poets in love do not end up happy and remembered like the Brownings. Love poems all you want, but avoid poets. If you want fidelity and stability, try a rock star or politician instead.