As Old As Civilization - ‘Romance’ - "Love's Grief" - The Impossible Woman

“Love at First Sight” (Romeo and Juliet) - Text - Zefferelli (1968) - "What is a Youth?" - Luhrmann (1996)

As Old As Civilization

Like death and meaning, love lies at the heart of Western literature and poetry. We see the role of love early on in the Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (where a courtesan lures the wild-man Enkidu into the city of Uruk, and where Ishtar's jealousy is catastrophic), in the Hebrew Bible (the bride and groom in The Song of Songs, Samson and Delilah, Jacob and Rachel, etc.) and in the Greek and Roman epics: in the Iliad the Trojan War starts because Paris runs away with the married Helen; in the Odyssey Odysseus is offered eternal love with a goddess yet makes an epic journey to get back to his mortal wife Penelope; in Aristophane's Lysistrata women withhold sex until men stop fighting; in Virgil's Aeneid Dido falls in love with Aeneas and throws herself on her own funeral pyre when he leaves her, etc.

Samson and Delilah  (1878) by Alexandre Cabanal (source: The Athenaeum, Wikimedia Commons)

Samson and Delilah (1878) by Alexandre Cabanal (source: The Athenaeum, Wikimedia Commons)

Helen and Cassandra  (1866) by Frederick Sandys. "This image accompanied a poem based on the Greek myth in which Cassandra admonishes Helen of Troy for her role in bringing about the Trojan War" (from Wikimedia Commons; source:

Helen and Cassandra (1866) by Frederick Sandys. "This image accompanied a poem based on the Greek myth in which Cassandra admonishes Helen of Troy for her role in bringing about the Trojan War" (from Wikimedia Commons; source:

Love is also central to late Medieval and early Modern literature, especially to the romances of the chivalric or courtly tradition (for example, the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere tears apart the Round Table).


1. Romance or romantic today usually refers to love relationships involving strong emotions and often sex.

2. Romantic in a literary context refers to the period from the end of the 18th C. to around 1832. This Romantic period is characterized by heightened emotion and idealism — in contrast to the rationalism of the 18th C. (often referred to as The Age of Reason) and the alleged staidness of the Victorian Period (mid to late 19th C.). Major Romantic writers include Austen and the Bronte sisters, and major poets include Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth (first generation) and Keats, Shelley and Byron (second generation).

3. The Romance tradition and The Romance refer to a Medieval tradition involving knights, ladies, a stylized chivalric and courtly relation between the sexes, old Celtic magic, Aurthurian legend, etc.

The idea of spiritual — as opposed to physical — love is crucial to the Romance and courtly tradition, key elements of which are linked to Christianity, the chivalric code, Arthurian romance, troubadour poets from eleventh century Southern France, Eleanor of Aquitaine (12th C.), and Fourteenth Century Italian poets such as Petrarch and Dante.

One important aspect of the courtly tradition is the spiritual elevation of the woman, which reaches a peak in the writing of Alighieri Dante (1265-1321). Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy links Classical and Christian literary traditions in many ways, one of these being the way in which Virgil (the Classical poet) guides Dante (the Christian poet) down and out of Hell. Because Virgil isn't Christian he can't guide Dante to Heaven, and so Beatrice (who is Christian) is called down from Heaven to guide Dante up the Mountain of Purgatory and into Paradise. 

Beatrice becomes a model for the unattainable, heavenly woman who guides man from his sinful nature up to Heaven. Curiously, this most idealized of women, is also a real woman, Beatrice Portinari. At the age of nine Dante fell in love with her (she was eight at the time) and stayed in love with her all his life, even after she married. In this way, she might be seen as the typical Lady of the courtly tradition -- married, unattainable, desirable, to be respected and served.

Dante Meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinità , by John Holiday, 1883 (Wikimedia Commons)

Dante Meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinità, by John Holiday, 1883 (Wikimedia Commons)

Here is a sonnet Dante wrote (in La Vita Nuova or The New Life, 1295) on the death of one of Beatrice's friends. In his preamble to the unnamed sonnet, Dante writes, "it pleased the Master of the Angels to call into His glory a damsel, young and of a gentle presence, who had been very lovely in the city I speak of: and I saw her body lying without its soul among many ladies, who held a pitiful weeping." For practical purposes, I have given the poem a title.

"Love's Grief"

Weep, Lovers, since Love’s very self does weep,

And since the cause for weeping is so great;

When now so many ladies, of such estate

In worth, show with their eyes a grief so deep:

For Death, the lout, has laid his leaden sleep

Upon a lady who was fair of late,

Defacing all our earth should celebrate, —

Yea all save virtue, which the soul does keep.

Now listen how much Love did honour her.

I myself saw him in his proper form

Bending above the motionless sweet dead,

And often gazing into Heaven; for there

The soul now sits which when her life was warm

Dwelt with the joyful beauty that is fled.

(From The New Life or La Vita Nuova, 1295, translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti — modernized by RYC)

The Impossible Woman

The  idea of woman as an evil temptress is at once opposite and complementary to the notion of woman as heavenly saviour. Woman as temptress goes back to many sources, such as Eve or Delilah in the Bible or Circe in The Odyssey. Since men have dominated literature historically, it could well be that the ideas of woman as chaste and heavenly and woman as lascivious and evil are simply a double projection of male fantasy. The Eagles express this possibility succinctly in the song, “One of These Nights”: "I’m looking for the daughter of the Devil himself, / I’m looking for an angel in white. / I’m looking for a woman who’s a little of both; / I can see her, but she’s nowhere in sight."

Virginia Woolf notes in A Room of One's Own (1929) that in the past women were represented by men, yet were seldom in a position economically and spatially (they require a room — besides the kitchen — of their own to write in) to give a full or rounded account of themselves. As a result,

[a] very queer, composite being thus emerges [in earlier literature]. Imaginatively [the woman] is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.

A recent take on gender roles in Cupid’s game of love can be found in the Portishead’s lyric, “Glory Box”:

I'm so tired of playing / Playing with this bow and arrow / Gonna give my heart away / Leave it to the other girls to play / For I've been a temptress too long / Just give me a reason to love you / Give me a reason to be a woman / I just wanna be a woman / From this time, unchained / We're all looking at a different picture / Through this new frame of mind / A thousand flowers could bloom / Move over, and give us some room


“Love at First Sight”

In the following excerpts from Romeo and Juliet (1597) the two Verona youths see each other for the first time at a party. Juliet (a Capulet) and Romeo (a Montague) fall in love without knowing that they belong to families that are at war with each other. The following three excerpts are from Act 1, scene 5. I've added the rhyme scheme for the second excerpt to emphasize how poetic form (here a sonnet) can be integrated into dramatic structure. 

Romeo [sees Juliet across the room]: 
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear --
Beauty too rich for use, for Earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand
And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

Romeo [taking Juliet’s hand]: 
If I profane with my unworthiest hand                a
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:                       b
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand         a
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.         b
Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,   c
Which mannerly* devotion shows in this;       proper     b
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,            c
And palm to palm is holy palmers’* kiss.     pilgrim's      b  
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?         d
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.     e
Romeo: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.      d
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.             e
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.  f
Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.      f
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.           g
Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took?    h
Romeo: Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!   g
Give me my sin again. [He kisses her.]
Juliet                                    You kiss by th’ book.         h

Juliet: My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathèd enemy.

Zefferelli (1968)

"What is a Youth?" 

(by Nino Rota, words by Eugene Walter)

What is a youth? Impetuous fire / What is a maid? Ice and desire / The world wags on / A rose will bloom, it then will fade / So does a youth, so does the fairest maid / Comes a time when one sweet smile / Has a season for a while / Then love's in love with me / Some they think only to marry / Others will tease and tarry / Mine is the very best parry / Cupid, he rules us all / Caper the cape, but sing me the song / Death will come soon to hush us along / Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall / Love is a task and it never will pall / Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall / Cupid, he rules us all

Luhrmann (1996)