Monday, April 25, 2011

Modern Love by John Keats

And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up
For idleness to cosset, nurse, and dandle;
A thing of soft misnomers, so divine
That silly youth doth think to make itself
Divine by loving, and so goes on
Yawning and doting a whole summer long,
Till Miss’s comb is made a pearl tiara,
And common Wellingtons turn Romeo boots;
Then Cleopatra lives at number seven,
And Antony resides in Brunswick Square.
Fools! if some passions high have warm’d the world,
If Queens and Soldiers have play’d deep for hearts,
It is no reason why such agonies
Should be more common than the growth of weeds.
Fools! make me whole again that weighty pearl
The Queen of Egypt melted, and I’ll say
That ye may love in spite of beaver hats.

I love John Keats' "Modern Love" because it makes me laugh. Its bitterness toward romantic love doesn't seem particularly Keatsian ("truth is beauty, beauty truth," yada yada, etc.) but it is pretty savage. Keats is bitching about the way that love clouds our perceptions, and creates "soft misnomers"--ordinary things are obscured by false visions of greatness. The comb becomes the tiara, "common Wellingtons" become "Romeo boots" (whatever those look like). But assigning such value to the trappings of love willy-nilly cheapens real love:

Fools! if some passions high have warm'd the world
If Queens and Soldiers have play'd deep for hearts,
It is no reason why such agonies
Should be more common than the growth of weeds.

At the end, I kept expecting a reversal along the lines of "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun," but, whatever those last lines mean, they are no reversal. The allusion seems to be to Cleopatra, who bet Antony that she could spend some really exorbitant sum on one meal, and then proceeded to melt a pearl in vinegar and drink it in front of him.

To be honest, I'm not sure what Keats' point is here. Perhaps, as Cleopatra has ruined something beautiful and valuable in an attempt to impress Antony, modern lovers have ruined love, which has no meaning unless they can reverse the process of degradation? The reference to beaver hats I do not understand at all. Whatever the notion, the pearl cannot come back, and so love has ruined love. How sad.

1 comment:

Phil said...

I think that the reason you don't get the "beaver hats" remark is that you do misunderstand the thrust of the poem, since one doesn't usually expect Keats, the great Romantic poet, to be unromantic, that is, to be satiric about romance--but he was in his letters and in minor poems such as this one. What the poem seems to be saying is that the romantic notion or version of "love" is in fact a luxury for the "great" ones, the Cleopatras, the Antonies, the Romeos, not for ordinary people who wear Wellington boots and who live "at number seven" or "in Brunswick Square." The grand and legendary notion of romantic love is not "more common than the growth of weeds," and there for there is "no reason" to expect and to bear "such agonies" as the Romantic notion of love makes us expect we would need to bear. Instead, we have have more everyday versions of "love, and so, common people "may love in spite of beaver hats." Beaver hats were rather common, and what Keats was saying, I think, is that even common people love but not in the manner of the great romantic legends, with all the "agonies" that that would entail.