I don’t think I’ve ever made a serious point of noticing Valentine’s Day before. A couple of times people have expected me to notice it with them, and that’s made me feel touched but also slightly awkward, because I don’t like that it’s a consumerist celebration. The ideal that the media’s going for is: buy your partner one of these Officially Designated Romantic Gifts, regardless of what their actual interests and likes and perspective on capitalism are.  Buy them a card saying ‘be mine’ or ‘yours forever’ or something else cliched and monogamous without real feeling behind it.

But anyway, I’m at home today, and have been browsing the interwebs and been introduced to some of the deliberately cheesy fannish Valentine’s cards meandering past on Tumblr, and, too my surprise, they made me feel like reading the kind of sappy romantic crap I actually like. So, here, WordPress: in honour of the longest love affair of my life, here’s a testament of exactly how fond I am of words. Kwerey’s tribute to Sappy Idealised Lurrrve Day, go. One close reading from John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets.

‘Love’s Growth’

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if Spring make it more.
But if this medicine, Love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mixed of all stuffs, paining soul, or sense,
And of the Sun his working vigour borrow,
Love’s not so pure and abstract as they use
To say, which have no Mistress but their Muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.
And yet no greater but more eminent,
Love by the Spring is grown,
As, in the firmament,
Stars by the Sun are not enlarged but shown.
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From Love’s awakened root do bud out now.
If, as in water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take,
Those like so many spheres, but one heaven make
For they are all concentric unto thee.
And though each spring do add to love new heat
As princes in times of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

He feels like the way he loves doesn’t fit the poetic rules: there isn’t this one ideal absolute available to him, how he thinks about this beau keeps changing, varying, expanding. He’s interacting with a real person, not the kind of figment on a pedestal courtly writers of the time were used to portraying. (And he’s not above being catty to point that out: they ‘have no Mistress but their Muse’!)

Stars and heavens and circles of ripples, and awakened roots because at this age Donne isn’t actually capable of writing a whole poem without at least a little innuendo. And then taxes, because he can’t write a whole poem without ending it on a wink and a nod yet either. Despite the fact we don’t see the cosmos how he does, I found this an easier stanza to read when I was first trying to understand the twisty ways of poets’ brains. His feelings are like these things: permanent to him, with complicated interdependencies, and sometimes less visible but nonetheless still there.

It’s hands-down one of my favourite poems. I’ve never really figured out why, because I don’t identify with his feelings in it and I really wouldn’t want to be the one unto whom all his loving attention is concentric unto – he’s a straight guy who’s guilty of a fair few misogynistic Nice Guy rants about his love being spurned and how that makes all women even, which, nope, even when tongue in cheek and in pretty metre aren’t going to win me over. But…

I find it a beautiful way of looking at the world: nature is unflinching even in apparent death, people are complicated and so are our feelings about them, and that there are dead blank times that seasons bring, but they don’t change you deeply, just on the surface. They don’t represent a loss of feeling.

This isn’t how he talks throughout his writing about love; I think it’s nearer to what he believes about God, actually. Whatever this poem came from, though, and whatever the object of it, I’m glad I can read it. This is the voice of someone who’s pragmatic but still unapologetically optimistic, someone who sees themselves as analytical and careful and sensible but who’s still kind of awed by their own capacity for feeling. I think that’s why today, while thousands of cards say easy stock phrases about love, I felt like reading this. He’s happier for questioning the idea of love as something ‘pure’ – is it really a quintessential binary state, whether you love something or you don’t?

Deconstruct it, so you can notice it when you build it back up. Question love. Why is it we celebrate the exclusive-sexual-relationship today, and why do we assume that that comes hand-in-hand with romance and roses and scarlet-red love? After all, Donne shows us that breaking love apart to see how it ticks along isn’t unromantic. It’s an act of trust, and a deep display of commitment and renewed understanding.

So, that’s my celebration of today. Reading something I like and reading deeper into it to find I like it in keeping with my politics and hopes and ideas about the world. I don’t like this any less than when I first picked through it with a clumsy understand of sytax at fifteen, and I like it more in more complicated ways than first I realised. Here you go, John Donne, here’s to you: happy Valentine’s Day. You loved well when you loved well.

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