"Love is but a silly infatuation, depend upon it. Friendship is but a name. I love nobody." -- Napoleon Bonaparte
"I've been in love before. Haven't you?" -- Marlene Dietrich, I've Been in Love Before
It is, über alles, the pursuit of folly. To try to write about love, how and why coveted and caught, is to try to express the inexpressible, capture the uncatchable.
And yet, the ranks of the pursuers of this folly are never empty for long. No sooner than one rank falls, mown down by some Napoleonic cynicism, than another rank is there to replace it.
More: Not every replacement is some greeting card scribbler or radio cowboy, either. Many of our most lauded writers have felt compelled to try to write through the mysteries of love. It is the challenge that can't be ignored, the gauntlet that can't lie there unheeded. Especially during this week of St. Valentine's feast.
"And is there more than love and death, then tell me its name?" implored Emily Dickinson.
Whatever it's called, it frequently frequents the Kingdom of Madness. Here Derek Wolcott, in "The Fist": "This has the strong/Clench of the madman, this is/ Gripping the ledge of unreason, before/Plunging howling into the abyss./Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live."
At all times and all places, the maze of love loses and confuses. Here's 8th century Japan, with Sakano-e no Iratsume writing of love that dare not speak its name: "How full of pain is love unknown!/A lady-lily blooming/Amidst luxuriant grasses/Upon the summer moor -- alone!"
From the same country and century, this is Yamabe no Akahito: "I wish I were close/To you as the wet skirt of/A salt girl to her body,/I think of you always."
In China, most marriages were arranged, and most women of letters were courtesans. Much love poetry concerned forbidden love, like this excerpt from the 7th century T'ang Dynasty by one Li Yu, titled, appropriately enough, "The Tryst": "As the south side of the Painted Hall we meet;/I fall trembling in his arms and say:/ 'Because it was so hard to come to you,/Let me have your best caress.'"
Halfway around the globe, there's the verse of exactly the same title by William Soutar that begins: "O luely, luely, cam she in/And luely she lay down:/I kent her be her caller lips/And her breasts sae sma' and roun'."
Here's an easier brand of Scottish, in a poem that interests me more with every passing month. It's by George Bruce and titled "Love in Age." It ends thusly: "Let the young make up their love songs,/About which subject they are securely ignorant./Let them look into eyes that mirror/Themselves. Let them groan and ululate/Their desire into a microphone. Let them/Shout their proclamations over they tannoy/ -- a whisper is enough for us."
But to show that love is no keeper of the calendar, back to China and this ancient saying from the land full of them: "If love be true, white hair is still black./If there be no affection, even beauty falls into contempt."
This is the work of an unknown author, as are many tales of love. In this next example, translated from 5th century Sanskrit, anonymity is the better part of valor: "The pit of green and black snakes,/I would rather be in the pit of green and black snakes/Than be in love with you."
Far more accommodating -- and romantic -- is the unknown writer of these lines from the Old Testament's Song of Solomon: "The voice of my beloved! Behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills. My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forward at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice. My beloved spake and said unto me, Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone."
A personal favorite is the 13th century Persian versifier Rumi. Few are as clear as he is as to how unclear love can be: "The minute I heard my first love story/I started looking for you, not knowing/How blind that was./Lovers don't finally meet somewhere./They're in each other all along."
And again: "If the sun were not in love, he would have no brightness/The side of the hill no grass on it/The ocean would come to rest somewhere."
That great lovers exist and are boons to the human experience is beyond argument. In the recently gone century, perhaps the greatest of these was a waiter who turned Apollo when he was put on film. His name was Rudolph Valentino.
His initials were "R.V."
You'll figure it out.