I love stories about love. Love at first sight. Love that sneaks up quietly after years of friendship. Love that causes the heart to beat and the breath to draw short. Love that pulses, quivers, gushes, consumes, and overwhelms.
I love those stories because they stimulate us, awaken us, and enrapture us. It is the tension that keeps us reading until the end; the sigh of satisfaction when we close the book.
These kinds of love stories will never grow old, will they?
Though I will always retain a sort of affection for happy endings, I find the older I get, and the more I learn about myself, my God, and my world, the more complex I need my love stories to be. The less satisfied I tend to be by wedding bells and the implied promise of Happily Ever After.
That’s why I’ve begun to appreciate and love a different type of love story over the years. These stories tell of love that rips, shreds, and leaves scars one must overcome to be whole again. Or love that is old, lacks romance, and goes on plodding long after the pulse slows and the excitement wanes. It’s love that must be fought for, sometimes lost and grieved over, and other times it goes unrequited. There is something heartrendingly lovely and honest about a love story like that.
When my turn came to write the second part of “Love in Literature” (you can read Part One by Jebraun here), my mind consistently went to two surprising works of literature. Both tell love stories that are at times sad and painful, and both end in ambiguity.
Astrophil and Stella
Written over 450 years ago by a man who’s life was tragic in its own right, Sir Philip Sydney, this sonnet sequence begins with one of my favorite lines of poetry. After falling helplessly, miserably in love, Astrophil pens:
“‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart and write.'”
He had considered himself above the throes and fancies of love, but finds himself undone by the lovely Stella.
“Mine eyes (shall I say cursed or blessed) beheld Stella; now she is named, need more be said?”
But she won’t return his favors–out of virtue, or ungratefulness–he cannot tell. But he feels scorned and disgraced. What’s worse, she sees his woe but doesn’t pity him. When he finally works up the nerve to tell her how he feels, she stops his mouth with a kiss.
The joy is short-lived however. He is forced to depart, and now it’s Stella who mourns the bitterness of love. After some time apart, they find that they’ve changed. Stella admits to Astrophil,
“‘But the wrongs love bears will make
Love at length leave undertaking.”
Their love story, as near as I can tell, ends disappointingly for readers who rooted for them to be together in the end. There is no saccharine ending tied up with a bow. It’s sad and frustrating. And yet there is still comfort for those of us who have discovered, in the reality of our own lives, the often confusing, unsatisfying, calamitous truth of love.
And who of us hasn’t? We live in a fallen world. We ourselves are fallen, and we love fallen people. We wound and we lash out to wound others in our pain.
Sometimes we accept the pain, swallow the disappointment, and choose to love love anyway. That is the story of my second favorite literary love story. It’s a tale thousands of years old. It’s meaning has been debated for as many years. Is it an allegory? A literal love story between two actual people? Maybe it’s both.We don’t know who wrote it, when it was written, or who it was actually about. But without a doubt, it’s a love story.
Song of Solomon
She loves him. He loves her. Their desire for one another is unmistakable. They enjoy the sight of one another, admire one another, and look forward with great anticipation to their union, which seems to come in the second chapter.
“Behold, he comes…and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come.”
The sexual imagery continues to the end of the chapter, according to some commentators, with ripe figs, blossoming vines, clefts, crannies, and grazing among the lilies.
But something is amiss in chapter three:
“On my bed by night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not.”
She goes out in the city looking for him, asking if others have seen him. She finds him, clings to him, and will not let him go. Then she begs the daughters of Jerusalem not to
“stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” (3:5)
Next comes the wedding, which seems a happy affair despite the events that have just transpired. They come together in the garden (not a coincidental location). She sleeps, but when she awakens, again, he is gone. Again she goes into the city looking for him, and gives the daughters of Jerusalem this message:
“If you find my beloved…you tell him I am sick with love.” (5:8)
Their response seems unhelpful at best.
“What is your beloved more than another beloved, O most beautiful among women?” (5:9)
What’s a girl to do when she’s disappointed by love, and her friends are no help?
Her response is both sad and wonderful, I think. She praises him. It’s as if she’s saying, “He’s my husband, for better or worse, and right now, even though it’s hard, I choose love.” It’s sacrificial, mature, heart-breaking, and the story of most every marriage that has gone the distance in our broken, often disappointing world.
In the end, she longs for her husband as a wife should, despite her broken heart.
“Love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave…
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.”
Is it a happy ending? Well…it’s complicated, as love so often is. And that’s why I love it.
What are your favorite literary love stories? Please share in the comments and join the conversation.