there was no analogy no
precedent to prepare
just the thereness of her
purple pleasantness lightening and
ember amber and fright me quieten me she evokes
beneath my underscalp behind my backchest
scalpel sacred chapel laketown 3am cometskies within me
above me come at me dove (i.e., kōtuku) love
above me all manner of numerical
contradiction, “souls” and “minds,” contraband
fine sands the absolutely new outside
the dialectic inside the inconsequential the
“individual” divided heart divided undividables
we take exception to the only exception and she (!)
evokes a holy terror clearer cleaner terra firma! everything
which is not me is so intense
extensive even intending on extending inverting
my own all part piece of the whole and naming it
subtlety peace in “in” the new not the ever new
yet the “new” as disruption the path less
often taken always blatantly overgrown unkempt
confesses its own boredom etc conformity
and the like thus the new which is true truly new (?)
the authentic the real the conveniently finite
this is it
if only such sudden trembling could accompany
every sweet idolatry I do literally then
the irreducibly future though it encompasses already
every ready all it could come to terms
with her and her cosmological implications
but it is really nothing more
than glorified glowing resplendent nothingness in
both senses of the word that is according
to our origin and my own subtlety I become
finite inside fine night fire-honey sulphur-blizzard
rain (reign?) singe cinch my countless
spiritual intestines you already do are have done
thus the necessity of distance lol
star queen ocean mantis oak being
if anything were to eventuate we would both curdle
at each other’s weakness! (i.e., smallness)
Posts Tagged ‘relationship’
there was no analogy no
The biblical call to love
Although I wrote an earlier post this year on Christian love, it remains a little clumsy and I’d like to do a lot more thinking on the subject. One thing that seizes me about biblical love is that it is characterised by other-oriented, self-giving. So although Jesus cites the second commandment as “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22:39), suggesting some basis in self-love for neighbour-love, the temptation is to hastily set this up as the standard by which all acts of self-giving are measured. So Jesus also calls us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), rather than “as they do to you.” He states paradoxically that “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39), that life and security are found not in seeking but forsaking. Perhaps this forsaking is what Paul has in mind when he places it in the context of the church: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3; cf. Rom 12:10; 1 Cor 10:24).
These are all based on Jesus’ own example. So, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul also notes, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Similarly, it is only because of God’s love that our love for one another is possible. So “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Trinity and reciprocity
A problem, however, arises. God is God and people are people. How can the latter love as the former? I consider the Trinity. Good theology will have us know that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have dwelt in reciprocated love from all eternity. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father (and all the other combinations), based not on any feature of the beloved Trinitarian person but each of the lover’s free decision to love. So the idea expressed in the last verse above (and throughout the Old Testament), that God loves the sinner regardless of their qualities, would be an oddity if in the Trinity one person’s love of another depended on its being reciprocated. But, is it an either/or? Having only done the rudimentaries, my reading on the Trinity is yet limited; nonetheless, allow me this: God is not a binity. Perhaps it is this not-so-superfluous third that makes all Trinitarian love possible. Is it at all acceptable to suppose that the Father’s love for the Son “enables” the Son to love the Spirit, regardless of that love being reciprocated?
Before shouting “heresy!” consider, it is too easy to make freedom the defining attribute of God. Where Western anthropology has often accorded human libertarian agency an honourable seat in the definition of what it means to be human, it was inevitable that the ideal of freedom would also be applied to God. This was perhaps also a response to hyper-hyper-Calvinist (of course, no longer Calvinist) definitions of God which placed the god of necessity above God himself, i.e. God acts this way and he could do no other as he is under necessity. In this case, freedom is much to be preferred. Yet, there remains the danger that freedom too stands above God in defining him. Rather, nothing, not even God’s freedom, stands above him in defining him as he cannot be defined; he comes to us on his own terms. (Ignore the contradiction(s) in that last line of argument). Additionally, God is one. No person of the Trinity acts as a libertarian individual but all act together. So while we say that that Son loved that Spirit, and distinctions are necessary, and this relationship is unique from say the Son’s love for the Father, the Father is not absent from the love between Son and Spirit. If he is, we very quickly divide the Godhead and plummet into paganism. Thus, in freedom the Trinitarian persons love each other, independent of its being reciprocated, but made possible by the very nature of God.
This provides context for the call to non-reciprocated love in Christianity. Christians are still called to love their enemies, not based on whether their enemies will reciprocate but on God’s perfection (Matt 5:48). As the love between two persons of the Trinity is non-existent without the third, so also is our call to love our enemies impossible without first being reconciled to God and living in Trinitarian community.¹ So the event of Christ’s death for all and his resurrection which provides the hope for all things finally being worked out, propels the believers to live lives as a part of this story (e.g. Rom 6:3-11). So also, God does not call individual believers but a community to himself: In radically acting as if another believer is better than their self, this believer is part of a whole community which seeks to do this, that, ideally, this believer is not only the giver but receiver of grace from other believers. Finally, the work of the Spirit in the lives of believers means the community actually experiences the Trinitarian love of God. How often have I been enabled to see a forlorn aspect of one of my relationships from a completely different, empowered, loving angle after emerging from prayer!
(Before proceeding, it would be a little ridiculous to set up non-reciprocated love as an ideal. The Bible is testament to the fact that God’s people have always struggled to love God, others, themselves, and their environment. I can only say that notwithstanding the life of Jesus, there are many more beautiful examples out there, and with the help of the body of Christ and the work of the Spirit, I somehow hope to join these!).
The awkward contradiction! (?)
After all that, I finally arrive at the reason for writing this post: To offer some scattered thoughts on Christian dating. My main concern is this: If the church is called to self-sacrificial love, and so too the individual in Christian marriage attempts to look to the other ahead of their self, is there a way to go about dating that puts the other before the self? Or is dating based on self-interest? For one individual to say that their interest in dating another is based on concern for that other above the individual’s self is a bold claim! It assumes either that in dating this other they will somehow benefit from the individual’s offer, or at least that the other is interested in the individual without that other having explicitly revealed it or even realised it. Conversely, dating based on self-interest seems to make a lot of sense. People seek intimacy. The silverscreen and the highway billboard both point to its fulfillment in romantic love.² Go, therefore, and make dinner arrangements. However, other- and self-interest is a false dichotomy; any absolute notion of either deserves rejection. I remain unimpressed with this critique of altruism, that nothing is truly altruistic because, although it parades as other-centred, it is sourced in the individual and therefore cannot exist for any reason other than for serving that individual. Every desire is self-interested, etc. But this assumes a perfectly bounded individual. There is no instance and never will be of an individual existing on their own terms. You cannot say individual without saying individual-in-(and-of-)the-world (chur Heidegger), or individual-in-relation-to-others. We are completely contingent on others for our coming-to-be. We live in the same world and share the same atoms. Thus, our other-centred concerns are never a direct result of our libertarian agency and neither are our supposedly self-interested ones; we live on the line between other and self, discovering otherness sometimes even within ourselves.
At least in a limited sense though, dating is based on self-interest. Is it possible to say that the individual does not primarily enter into dating for the sake of the other but their self? Assume so, because my argument depends on this! If so, though, does it not run counter to the call to other-centred Christian love? I can now think of two reasons why this does not matter. Firstly, if something good comes of dating, i.e. marriage, then the other-centred love worked towards in this context will continually overlook the need for the initial stages of the relationship to be attributed to one party. It is not a matter of whether she liked him first, etc, as their current love is independent of any initiation but based in continually putting the other ahead of the self. She is just stoked that he responded to her and he’s just stoked that she liked him in the first place. Secondly, although I hope that Christian love always seeks to acknowledge and minimise any power imbalance between lover and beloved, an other-centred, non-reciprocated romantic love will inevitably result in power imbalance. In a healthy relationship there will be power imbalances due to the strengths and weaknesses of each involved, and sometimes one party will give more and receive less, but in the course of love these are to be worked out. Yet to seek an other in dating where all their needs are put before the individual’s is actually to do a disservice to that other. Imagine basing a relationship solely on the desire to honour the other’s feelings towards you despite you having no romantic interest in that other. The other is not actually honoured because their love lacks reciprocation. Of course, much dating will start like this, but you would hope that both individuals would at least hold within themselves the possibility for romantic interest in the other, and if transitioning into a relationship you would hope that at least some of that romantic interest had been realised! So “self-interest” becomes very valid in Christian dating: Is there a possibility that my romantic interest will be returned?
In sum, Jesus calls his disciples to radical, other-centred love, based on his own example. This also is the case with the Trinity, and our inclusion into Trinitarian community allows us begin to love others regardless of whether this is reciprocated. A problem, however, emerges with Christian dating, as it is typically founded on self- rather than other-interest. Yet this self-interest is not ultimate and, unwittingly or no, a necessary constituent of other-centered romantic love.
* * *
¹Of course, there are examples of enemy-love outside of Christianity and these need be examined individually.
²To make matters worse/better, there is some biblical support for this! So the story in Genesis 2 presents God making Eve because Adam would be lonely without her. But this is not the only biblical meditation on romantic love. Jesus notes there will be no marriage in heaven (Matt 22:30). The eunuchs, sexual outcasts excluded from marriage, are accorded a special place in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12). As Paul writes to the Corinthians, the future has come into the now through Jesus and the Spirit, making the eschatological reality of celibacy possible, even beneficial (1 Cor 7:25-38). This is not to say that romantic love is this-worldly and it will have no meaning in the new heavens and new earth. I am of the opinion that it’s value will be affirmed, fulfilled, and redefined. However, as a Christian, my life is continually re-oriented around what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. The question of marriage of celibacy is monumentally relative to the reality of Jesus.
Not too long ago I finished Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, a wee book with an accomplished philosopher’s take on the subject. Tomorrow I am required to write “a contemporary restatement on how the death of Jesus shows the love of God.” In defining what love is, I’ve found Badiou’s critiques of the contemporary, capitalist, individualist love to be of great prophetic value. He writes of a dating site with the slogan, “Get love without chance!”:
I believe this hype reflects a safety-first concept of “love”. It is love comprehensively insured against all risks: you will have love, but will have assessed the prospective relationship so thoroughly, will have selected your partner carefully by searching online — by obtaining , of course, a photo, details of his or her tastes, date of birth, horoscope sign, etc. — and putting it all in the mix you can tell yourself: “This is a risk-free option!” … Clearly, inasmuch as love is a pleasure almost everyone is looking for, the thing that gives meaning and intensity to almost everyone’s life, I am convinced that love cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.¹
I was reminded of this by a quote from Jürgen Moltmann in the course reader: “Were God incapable of suffering then he would also be incapable of love.” Love, as putting another’s needs before oneself, requires risk, sacrifice, and even suffering.
* * *
¹Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong, In Praise of Love (2009), translated by Peter Bush (London, England: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 6-7.
Haven’t been around for a while but just found some time (ha!) to take a look at Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, which I paid too much for when in one of those need-to-buy-a-book moods. Despite some philosophical jargon, it’s quite accessible. I’ve been reading it slowly to stimulate my thoughts on love, which brings me to the current post, recasting some previous thoughts on the subject. It should also be noted that this is almost primarily a textual exercise, working in the ideal, as my experience in both love romantic and love universal is lacking.
* * *
Love in the New Testament is first defined in relation to God: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1Jn 4:10).¹ Paul has similar thoughts, demonstrating God’s initiation and humility in love: “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Although divine love is founded on an unequal relationship, human love should be equal and reciprocal, as is shown in the Jesus’ words on the greatest commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). To points can be made here. Firstly, love of yourself provides the measure by which your neighbour should be loved. To put it negatively, hate of others is firstly hate of self. Slavoj Žižek makes this related observation:
I don’t think that the so-called fundamentalist Islamic terror is grounded in the terrorist’s conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilisation and so on and so on … The problem with … fundamentalist terrorists is not that we consider them inferior to us but rather that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.
Secondly, at least regarding the romantic, love to be love requires reciprocity. It’s cliche but: in love there is the desire to love and be loved, so to truly love others we must allow them to love us too. To love another is love yourself is to accept another’s love for you.
* * *
Yet love is not always reciprocated! As shown above, love comes first from God and then overflows into human relationships. Further, not only does God’s love for us inform these relationships but in Christianity the self’s love for another is an extension of their primary love for God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt 22:37-39). John also makes this connection in suggesting that hating another is equivalent to hating God: “I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness” (1Jn 2:8-9).
What is not reciprocated in human love is already there in abundance in divine-human love. This is how the golden rule, as an adaption of the neighbour-love commandment, can also ignore reciprocity: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). Rather than basing neigbour-love on self-love, neighbour-love here is based on an ideal. Regardless of whether you are treated the way you would most like to be, treat others in this way. The call to enemy-love in the New Testament is an even clearer illustration of this sacrificing human reciprocity to express divine love (Mt 5:43-48; Rom 12:19-21).
* * *
Finally, although love requires two giving parties, two places in the Bible I can think of make room for the consummation of the dialectic, when two become one. Paul writes, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3). This is akin to Moses’ words, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written” (Ex 32:31-32). Here self-giving love is not only not reciprocated by others but, out of love, sunders itself from the power which makes it possible. God gives his love so completely that the one who receives this love can only also give themselves completely, so completely that the self initiates its own annihilation in the other. The standard characterisation of love as exclusive and preferential can be expanded here: Precisely because of love’s exclusivity with and preferentiality for the divine, it overflows to the inclusive and universal.
But to what extent, as the utmost expression of love, is self-annihilation its end? Jesus’ paradoxical call to follow him contains a surprise twist: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25). Following Jesus here is a complete self-denial; any hint of intentions towards self-preservation in one’s acts and one is not really following him. It is self-annihilation in the other. But the paradox is that salvation comes only through this act of self-annihilation. Completely forsaking one’s rights, privileges and self is paradoxically the only way one comes by them in the first place. Even when the self cuts off all reciprocity through sacrifice, it miraculously receives it back. This is evident in the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11:
Though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
God dies. He sacrifices all there is to sacrifice, in complete self-annihilation. Yet he receives it all back and more. The obvious difficulty with this is that self-annihilation is not really self-annihilation if the self sees some reward coming to it after implementing its actions. But this is to miss the point of the paradox: In complete devotion to the other, the self forsakes all consideration of its own preservation, cutting itsself off in the state of giving, not the anticipation of receiving. The self’s reception of salvation is not transactional; but rather the Lord, who gave so that it could give, justifies it out of a desire to keep on giving.
In the passage to which this hymn is connected, Paul admonishes the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Php 2:3). The picture of divine love is replicated in the Christian community. Here, as in the above examples, reciprocity is suspended through the sacrifice of putting others’ needs before one’s own, yet the action is reciprocated, as other members of the community treat their others in the same way.
Love is a dialectic: sacrifice is not made first possible through the love already received from the other to which the sacrifice is directed, but it ‘leaps’ forward on the basis of divine love, seeking to express this love with another but with no guarantee of the love’s return or reciprocation. Yet it is reciprocated, and in this way it is contained in divine love.
* * *
¹All citations from the NRSV
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
* * *
I haven’t read Shakespeare for a while but I rediscovered this one recently. If you’re unfamiliar with Shakespeare, not only did he write an impressive set of plays with piercing psychological and existential insights into humanity, he also wrote 150 sonnets on love, 150 alluding to the number of psalms in the Bible. Above is sonnet 29, which asserts the narrator’s consolation in love when jealously despising what other people have.
The first line determines the problem: The narrator lacks some fortune (possibly material wealth, or even basic means), and is somewhat looked down on by others around him.¹ This leads to sorrow (2), prayers with the accompanying feeling of being unheard (3), self-debasement (4), and jealously assessing those around him (5-8). There’s possibly a pun on ‘rich’ (5; cf. ‘wealth’ in line 13), although I’m unsure to what extent Shakespeare’s use coincides with our modern association with material affluence. The narrator is jealous of others because of their friends (6), and skills and freedoms (7), to the point that it undermines everything he himself enjoys (8).
When the narrator thinks on his love (9-10), he is like the lark (a type of bird) who sings to heaven in the midst of an imperfect world (11-12). To get to the depth of the metaphor here, Shakespeare’s classical sense of earth = imperfect (bad?) and heaven = perfect (good?) needs to be felt. The sonnet ends with an affirmation of the narrator’s love over the utmost of material and social capital in the metaphor of the king.²
This sonnet is in keeping with Shakespeare’s others which contrast worldly imperfections with the perfection of love. In Sonnet 66 the narrator desires death in light of social evils such as the poor having nothing and the rich having everything, rape, censorship, and general abuses of power, yet concludes he couldn’t because “to die, I leave my love alone.” Peter Rollins said it like this:
“If one believes that the world is meaningful, yet does not love, they cannot help but experience the world as meaningless. Yet if one believes that the world is meaningless yet loves, that person cannot help but experience their world as meaningful.”
Here, love is not affected by any externalities but is of primary importance when assessing life’s value. Regardless of what the narrator experiences, nothing can take away his sole joy, which is love. But maybe this is too simplistic a way of reading the sonnet, and especially assessing love. Here love is reduced to a consolation. Everything else sucks but at least you have love. Compare Sonnet 130: The narrator, quite humourously, and in defiance of the history of poetry, humanises his female subject by denying her any deific qualifications:
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground
Yet after this he concludes she is just as good as any woman whose devotee has cast elaborate, poetic, ‘false’ constructions upon. What becomes apparent is that the humanity, even imperfection, of the narrator’s subject is an essential component of their love. She is still ‘as rare’ as any woman who ostensibly commands goddess-like features. The same idea can be found in sonnet 29. Such is the ‘wealth’ of the narrator’s love that the narrator would not swap his state for that of kings (13-14). Of course, ‘state’ here can be read as the state of love removed from any other which-ways of material or social circumstance, but who’s to say the exact nature of the narrator’s relationship would improve or at least remain if he had ‘fortune’ and the attention of other ‘men’s eyes?’ In this sense the narrator’s love is not a just a mere consolation to his circumstances but his circumstances are essential to that love itself. His love becomes a reflection on his circumstances which would not be possible without them.
* * *
¹This quick analysis provides possible parallels from Shakespeare’s life.
²Probably primarily material. Although kings would have enjoyed all the pomp and ceremony of the court they would have had to deal with their subjects! Additionally, being a king did not necessarily meant you had any special ‘art’ or skill (7), but then again Shakespeare may be only construing ‘art’ as valuable as it is a means to freedom.
Five sonnets here I wrote over the course of 2010, now slowly rotting on my USB drive. If you choose to read one or two, bear in mind they need to be read slowly. They look long but poetry is really short. If you would like to appreciate them then you may even read one over more than once. They are written with some loose chronology in mind.
To see Eden in its first spring
would inspire life
in the wintriest soul, warming
to its Creator from merciless
grey. The freshwater trickle down
an arm’s length of rocks is a torrent
upon the heart; faint starlight through the forest
canopy illuminates each beat.
On some soft buttercups in Paradise,
Adam lay and gave audience to a pair
of sleeping doves. No previous
offshoot of naïve rationality had so much
as inclined him to the hole
in his being, the edge of which he now slept.
earlier. Ample shards of sun
pierced the shade, broke on
the gossamer, heavy
with dew, and flitted about Adam’s eyelids.
He stirred a little. She,
circumspect, withdrew her step and waited,
as one eye, then another, slowly discerned morning
on moss and bark, to discover her feet
There! Wildly, over Adam rolled! And ran to outrun
his pounding chest – and beautiful
God he challenged when his gaze
fell about Eve’s face.
As the jackal grinds her teeth
to twilight, she whets
downwind. Ecru mountains
flank the dimming horizon. If the huntress
had sniffed him in her territory, it was his
raw passion that let on, though Adam
would have her
skin. But soon the sable hour and desert
air will smooth the sand and cool
his lust better
than sweat can. The constant, steady heartbeat
of a distant other will lull this weary spirit to
rest. And El Shaddai’s smile will wrinkle in dust.
Some figure stumbles across
the dirt, and skips a step over some
misplaced pebble. Another trails
at a distance, in inadvertent pursuit. From the highest
point above them, the sun burns
like a curse. When the throat starts
pulsing, the body needs water, and sleep
when the sultry day relents. Two
stragglers crossed a wasteland
and settled with the sea.
And as the tide pushed inland, Eve pushed
toward the only other she knew. Her tired
eyes remained open. Adam drank no water.
But they sat very close.
With night looming silently
above, the shore inched up
the sandy incline. Up sprang Adam
from the bite that nipped his toes,
and left his companion’s side. In his arms
he carefully gathered her to
the higher ground, then lunged with a fist of sand
at the haughty wave that tried to snatch
his Eve. But in that moment, the first man saw
the first time he, with deadly curiosity, spied
her face and had longed just to meet her
eyes again. And he saw
the embers edging the carcass of the goat he
first slaughtered. He was jealous that the sands
would one day take his Eve. And he held her
as if holding eternity.
Posted in Poetry, tagged analysis, auld robin gray, elegy written in a country churchyard, lacrimae rerum, lady anne barnard, love, marriage, melancholy, poetry, poverty, relationship, scots, thomas gray, tragedy on May 17, 2012| Leave a Comment »
Before reading, you may find it exceedingly helpful to know that I’ve provided a large number of glosses just after the poem that you can refer to throughout for understanding. It’s not that different from English though and you can usually figure it out!
When the sheep are in the fauld, and the kye at hame, (1)
And a’ the warld to rest are gane,
The waes o’ my heart fa’ in showers frae my e’e,
While my gudeman lies sound by me.
Young Jamie lo’ed me weel, and sought me for his bride; (5)
But saving a croun he had naething else beside:
To make the croun a pund, young Jamie gaed to sea;
And the croun and the pund were baith for me.
He hadna been awa’ a week but only twa,
When my father brak his arm, and the cow was stown awa’; (10)
My mother she fell sick,–and my Jamie at the sea–
And auld Robin Gray came a-courtin’ me.
My father couldna work, and my mother couldna spin;
I toil’d day and night, but their bread I couldna win;
Auld Rob maintain’d them baith, and wi’ tears in his e’e (15)
Said, ‘Jennie, for their sakes, O, marry me!’
My heart it said nay; I look’d for Jamie back;
But the wind it blew high, and the ship it was a wrack;
His ship it was a wrack–Why didna Jamie dee?
Or why do I live to cry, Wae ‘s me? (20)
My father urgit sair: my mother didna speak;
But she look’d in my face till my heart was like to break:
They gi’ed him my hand, tho’ my heart was in the sea;
Sae auld Robin Gray he was gudeman to me.
I hadna been a wife a week but only four, (25)
When mournfu’ as I sat on the stane at the door,
I saw my Jamie’s wraith,–for I couldna think it he,
Till he said, ‘I’m come hame to marry thee.’
O sair, sair did we greet, and muckle did we say;
We took but ae kiss, and we tore ourselves away: (30)
I wish that I were dead, but I’m no like to dee;
And why was I born to say, Wae ‘s me!
I gang like a ghaist, and I carena to spin;
I daurna think on Jamie, for that wad be a sin;
But I’ll do my best a gude wife aye to be, (35)
For auld Robin Gray he is kind unto me.
Auld Robin Gray by Lady Anne Lindsay
* * *
(1) kye: kine/cows, hame: home; (2) a’: all; (3) waes: woes, fa’: fall, frae: from;
(6) saving a croun: apart from a croun, a unit of Scottish currency; (7) To make a croun a pund: metaphorically, to make more money, as a pound, a British unit, was worth more, gaed: goed/went; (8) baith: both;
(9) twa: two; (10) brak: broke, stown: stolen;
(19) dee: die; (20) This should be read with quote marks: why do I live to cry, “Woe is me”?
(21) urgit sair: literally, ‘urged it sore’, although sair functions as an adverb so it can be read as ‘urged me sorely’; (23) gi’ed: gived/gave;
(26) stane: stone; (27) wraith: ghost;
(29) sair, sair: sorely, sorely, greet: cry, possibly also a pun on the English word, muckle: much; (30) ae: one;
(33) gang: go; (34) daurna: dare not; (35) aye: always
With huge thanks to the Scots dictionary.
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You have just witnessed one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful occurrences in English literature. Some guy necessarily put it to song a wee while after it was written. I came across this singer when I was trying to figure out how to pronounce the words authentically.
Lady Anne Barnard wrote the poem in 1772, her early twenties. It is unique in the English poetry tradition in that it’s a published work of a female writer (not that there aren’t others, just that others are more exceptions than the rule). Francis Palgrave, the editor of the classic Golden treasury of English verse, was sparse in his notes, yet he tersely records, with unwitting condescension, “There can hardly exist a poem more truly tragic in the highest sense than this, nor, perhaps, has any poetess known to the editor equalled it in excellence” (emphasis mine). Possibly Lady Anne’s success had something to do with her nobility, although the poem is also written in the Scots language, a Germanic origin, close relative of English, which although having a rich literary history bears the burden of being sourced in a people historically oppressed by the English.
The poem was written leading up to Romanticism, when literary figures started placing more emphasis and value on folk traditions. Scots-English relations were on the up and up, as the beginnings of the United Kingdom had been initiated about 65 years earlier. And Robert Burns, Scotland’s most celebrated poet, also wrote around this time.
Check out this site (scroll down to Lady Anne) for more information on context.
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The poem opens similarly to Thomas Gray’s foundational melancholy, Elegy written in a country churchyard, published earlier that century:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Both contain images of the stock settling down for the night as the world goes to rest, with the narrator, Jennie, left alone to contemplate the sorrows of life. It’s possible that Lady Anne borrowed from the classic, whether intentionally or no, as Elegy was an immediate and ongoing success when released 21 years earlier. In a more holistic sense, the two are similar in that they are both written by well-to-do people, reflecting on the sorrows of the rural underclasses.
Whatever the case, the blatant irony of Jennie’s situation is doleful: She is alone crying in her bed while her gudeman lies sound by me. As we progress through the poem, we discover the term gudeman does not so much represent an authentic feeling of Jennie towards her new husband. More so she refers to Auld Robin Gray as a good man out of reluctant resignation to her circumstances. He can give Jennie and her family security but he cannot give her the emotional engagement, even ‘love’ that she needs, because her heart was already given to another. Is it possible that this is a reflection of some subtle going-on in Lady Anne’s real life, a subject matter to which she was attracted to write with much more bombastic despondency?
In the second verse we are introduced to the young and hopeful Jamie. He knows nothing of the sorrows that will befall his intended bride-to-be while at sea, and therefore engages in his work with hope marrying her when it is complete. I think it’s almost bad form to speculate who has it worse off here. But I would say Jennie still takes the cake as she must spiral downwards into sadness as she progressively finds it difficult to care for her family and must resign to marriage to someone she doesn’t love, whereas Jamie is actually moving happily closer towards something he desires, albeit deceptively, and is let down all of a sudden when he is reunited with her after going to sea.
In the third verse we get a further glimpse of auld Robin Gray. His age is something that immediately distinguishes him from Jamie. Perhaps he has had some more time in life to ‘get ahead’ and make some financial successes, thus providing a good base for marital/familial support. Note the humour in his last name, Gray. He is given a title, with a full name, whereas Jennie and Jamie are only referred to on a first name basis. Doesn’t this show Jennie’s emotional distance to him, maybe even auld carrying a tone of scorn? The use of a last name could also denote some respectability on Robin’s part, as he is a bit older and carries financial/societal sway. Perhaps we need to be sympathetic to Robin’s situation as well. Was he a lonely old man, rejected in his youth, who was just seeking companionship? Yet he pursues someone who he will not successfully emotionally engage with, making clear the universal tragedy of the poem: No character receives what they sought, perhaps only Jennie’s mother and father, yet at the expense of their daughter’s happiness.
How seriously can we take Robin’s sincerity? In the fourth verse when he pleads Jennie marry him, wi’ tears in his e’e, what does this mean? He had clearly reflected upon the hopelessness of her parents’ situation. But how necessary was his marriage to her? If he really cared for Jennie as much as he did for her parents then maybe he could have continued to provide financial support and let her alone to await the homecoming of her man to be. Robin Gray comes onto the scene just when he needs to, when he knows that Jennie cannot say no. Why didn’t he come a’courtin‘ her a little earlier, when he could’ve given her heart a chance, instead of taking advantage of the position of power he was in? To Robin’s credit, if he was genuinely concerned about Jennie’s parents welfare, and made the necessary steps to provide for them, this may have aroused concern in the neighbourhood that there was some under the table trade-off going on, ie. Jennie. His imploring her to marry him allows him to more blamelessly support her and her family.
In the fifth verse we discover that Jamie’s ship is a wrack. Nature has made a mockery of Jennie’s last inhibition. She now has no reason not to marry Robin. Yet, I think it’s unclear whether or not Jennie knew Jamie was dead. In the next verse she evidently is still reluctant to marry Robin. Perhaps she is holding onto the hope that Jamie is still alive. The main contention comes with her question, Why didna Jamie dee? Is this a present reflection on something that happened not too long ago? Or is this evidence that at the time of hearing about Jamie’s accident, she also heard he was ok? I’d say the former, as it was probably used as a point of argument from Robin and Jennie’s parents to persuade her to marry. Also, when Jamie comes home not too long after, Jennie appears to think it his ghost (wraith). The question is worth more than that though. She seems to say that it would have been better her beloved die than for him to live and the two of them be apart.
In the sixth verse there is a repeat of gudeman, alluded to also in the closing line, For auld Robin Gray, he is kind unto me. As mentioned earlier, this signals Jennie’s resignation to her circumstances. She mourns the loss of marriage to her beloved, yet she must take some consolation, however unwillful, in the fact that Robin is a good husband and provider.
For me the seventh verse is the most tragic of the whole poem. Imagine Jamie, after his hard months at sea, come home to claim Jennie as his wife. Imagine his hopeful smile as he cuts straight to the chase, I’m come hame to marry thee. But at what moment does he realise something is not right? Does Jennie break into tears encountering his wretched deception? Worse, is he blissfully unaware, thinking rather that his forward proposal was received with such joy and emotion that Jennie couldn’t withhold from weeping? Surely he must have an inkling upon seeing her once again, as she is mournfu‘ when he arrives. Perhaps he is so unprepared for her sadness that his assertion of marriage is the only thing can think of to say. He proposes to her out of weakness. Or maybe he is trying desperately to cheer her up?
Now we are left with Jennie in her life without love. It has lost all meaning and colour that her previous affection afforded it. Even simple tasks like spinning are difficult. She has too much of a conscience to dwell on her lost opportunity. And she only desires her death. Well! I hope you enjoyed the analysis! There’s something strangely, deeply appealing to me about the poem. If you have any further questions or speculations, please let me know in the comments section.