I just got a note from the editor at the Sewanee Review letting me know that he'll be publishing my essay "The Language of Love."It's a piece that focuses on the way in which three disparate poets--Marie de France from twelfth-century France, Jan Kochanowski from sixteenth-century Poland, and Phillis Wheatley from seventeenth-century colonial America--turned to poetry as medium for expressing, compressing, and expatiating on love--not just romantic and sexual love but also love for family and vocation. I excerpted work by all three of these poets in A Poet's Sourcebook, and I couldn't stop thinking about any of them after I'd finished the anthology. The work is so intense and poignant, the lapse of centuries so large. I think this is partly why I'm so drawn to poets of the past: that vibrating connection over such distances seems far more miraculous to me than the shared consciousness of the present-tense world. It's not that I don't love and admire poets whose lives have overlapped mine. But when I hear these faraway voices speaking so exactly, so intimately, I am overwhelmed again and again.
In Chaitivel, . . . [Marie] tells the tale of a lady who is courted by four knights. After three are killed in a tournament and the fourth is gravely wounded, the lady “mourned for each by name.”
“Alas,” she said, “what shall I do?
I’ll never be happy again.
I loved these four knights
and desired each one for himself;
there was great good in all of them;
they loved me more than anything.
For their beauty, their bravery,
their merit, their generosity,
I made them fix their love on me;
I didn’t want to lose them all by taking one.
I don’t know which I should grieve for most;
but I cannot conceal or disguise my grief.”
When I read a passage such as this one, I almost feel as if Marie has reconfigured the notion of chivalry. Rather than the ideal of a singular devotion—one knight devoted to one lady—the notion takes on a new coloring: that of an individual’s responsibility to the bearers of the chivalric ideal. The lady in Chaitivel shoulders the weight of loving all of those men who have graciously loved her. Is the poet hinting that a woman’s sexual freedom can be not only an honorable choice but also a deeply moral one? If so, this is a breathtaking moment in the history of human conversation.
[from "The Language of Love," forthcoming in the Sewanee Review (2015).]