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The Love Poems of Rich, Marvell and Campion: Realism Vs. Idealization

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Jordan Reid Berkow

Personal Response


December 14, 1998

The Love Poems of Rich, Marvell and Campion: Realism vs. Idealization

Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems,” which explore the nature of lesbian love, differ strikingly from classic love poems written by a man to a woman, such as Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Thomas Campion’s “There Is a Garden in Her Face.” Rich’s poems focus on the “us” aspect of love, the concept of two strong, yet imperfect women facing all oppositions together, while the love poems written by men are far more reverent, almost worshipful of their subjects. The lesbian poems have a sense of love being “real”, a connection based on far more than physical attraction, whereas the men’s poems focus on an idealized view of the woman: beautiful, pure, distant. The women in Marvell and Campion’s poems are lovely fa?§ades, storybook figures without any real depth or imperfections. Perhaps the lesbian love poems could be seen as less eloquent, or less flawlessly romantic, but the romance in them is found in the genuine nature of the love. Rich is doubtlessly writing about experiences she has had, real people she has loved, whereas Marvell and Campion could ostensibly be writing about any beautiful, but otheriwse characterless, woman that they’ve seen.

The stress that Rich places on the two members of the couple as equals is a striking contrast to Marvell’s and Campion’s poems, in which the female subject is placed on a pedestal and kept at a distance. There is little sense of a real-life relationship between the man and the woman. The men’s poems are mere descriptions of the woman and their love for her, with little discussion of how they interact, or how they may feel about her personality. Rich, however, creates an atmosphere of “us against the world”, writing “I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow, / and somehow, each of us will help the other live, / and somewhere, each of us must help the other die” (Rich 237). Certainly, this discrepancy is at least partially a product of the different eras in which the poems were written; Campion and Marvell were writing in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively, while Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” was written in the mid-1970’s. Victorian and Elizabethan culture dictated that the woman be far more removed from the often vile realities of life – revered, but not seen as an equal partner in a relationship. Sexuality would not have been a topic to be openly discussed. Rich’s discussion of the sexual nature of her relationships, however, is instrumental to a full grasp of the equal partnerships that she experiences. “I put my hand on your thigh / to comfort both of us, your hand came over mine, / we stayed that way, suffering together” (Rich 243). Although it is possible that the discrepancy in focus is due to the era, it is certainly notable that Rich focuses on the romance being found in the way that the two lovers hold each other up, helping each other through life, while the men’s love poems keep the woman remote, an idol more than a human.

Marvell and Campion both describe a woman lovely to the point of perfection. Marvel writes, “[t]here is a garden in her face / where roses and white lilies grow; / A heav’nly paradise is that place” (Kennedy 288) while Campion describes a woman who “[a]n hundred years should go to praise / Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze” (Kennedy 375). Marvell’s and Campion’s poems are both flowery, lyrical descriptions of the beautiful woman that they love, yet it is not clear that they love her for any reason other than her beauty. Rich, by contrast, finds romance in the “realness” of the woman whom she loves. “we crouched in the open hatchway / vomiting into plastic bags / for three hours between St. Pierre and Miquelon. / I never felt closer to you” (Rich 242). Clearly, this is neither a delicate nor a particularly lovely image. Rich’s love is not idolatry, simple worship of an outer fa?§ade. She loves the women in these poems because they are so real, so very human, with “traveled thighs” and “generous, delicate mouth[s] / where grief and laughter sleep together” that make them imperfect, yet perfect because of their wholeness as a person. They are not distant, untouchable – they are very possible, and so the love is that much more real and passionate.

Rich’s poems are romantic because the love expressed in them is so genuine. The reader of Rich’s poems gets the sense that Rich has actually known these women, actually felt these powerful emotions. In the classical poems there is a distant quality, a feel of admiration or lust that nearly everyone could probably imagine, regardless of whether he had actually experienced it. “Had we but world enough and time, / . . .We would sit down and think which way / To walk, and pass our long love’s day” (Kennedy 375). There is a trite, simplistic feel to the experiences with the woman that Marvell recounts. Rich’s poems, however, possess a kind of rawness, a sensuality not easily imagined. “And my incurable anger, my unmendable wounds / break open further with tears, I am crying helplessly, / and they still control the world, and you are not in my arms” (Rich 238). This powerful, bold emotion exposes Rich’s very soul; she is clearly not hiding behind anything. This recalls the stereotype that is far easier for women to express emotion than men, as men often fear that a show of emotion makes them weak, vulnerable. Neither Marvell nor Campion risk anything in their poems; they are safe, distant. There is little personal information about the poet found in either poem, except that each narrator appreciates a woman’s beauty (hardly a trait which invites an impression of weakness). Rich risks far more with her poems, putting herself on display, showing her love for the women she writes the poems to by baring her soul to the world for them.

Of course, which poem is more romantic all comes down to the question of personal preference. Which is more romantic: Reverent idealization or realistic, imperfect love? Appreciation of the physical traits of a person or of the person as an entire human being? Personally, I find Rich’s poems describe a love far deeper and far more real than either Marvell or Campion’s poems. The love that Rich expresses for the women in her poems is a total love, deep-seated and far-reaching; she loves every part of these women, even their imperfections. Marvell and Campion only see one side of the women who they “love”, and so I cannot believe that the love that they write about in their poems will be either deep or long-lived. I do not think that this discrepancy is entirely due to the fact that Marvell and Campion were writing heterosexual poems, while Rich is a lesbian writing to a woman, although I do believe that sexual identity plays a role in how one views love. The fact that far more obstacles exist to lesbian love than heterosexual love would certainly place more of an “us against the world” spin on Rich’s poems. Additionally, the different eras during which the poems were written had to have had something to do with the discrepancy. I do, however, think that if the Elizabethan and Victorian poets really had the same mentality towards love as Rich did and were simply conforming to certain restrictions, the underlying tone would have indicated more of the “total” love that I believe Rich describes. The most significant reason for the different attitudes toward love that are exhibited in Rich’s and Marvell and Campion’s poems is the simple fact that the two genders have opposing ideas of “ideal love”. The idea that men are more comfortable with separation, while women yearn for attachment is certainly not a novel one, but I find it interesting that these three poems express the differing attitudes that men and woman have towards love, sexual preference aside. All of the poets are writing about women, and yet the women in “To His Coy Mistress” and “There Is a Garden In Her Face” seem almost a different species than the women in “Twenty-One Love Poems.” Women, perhaps, are better able to understand the intricacies to the female character, and thus better able to appreciate other women as whole, complex people with imperfections, yet worthy of love. Women not only are more likely to seek an emotional connection, but also are especially likely to find that connection reciprocated when the love is directed towards another woman, resulting in intense love.

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