146. “Love Not” by Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton (1808-77)

Love not, love not, ye hapless sons of clay!

Hope’s gayest wreaths are made of earthly flow’rs–

Things that are made to fade and fall away,

When they have blossom’d but a few short hours.

Love not, love not!

Love not, love not! The thing you love may die–

May perish from the gay and gladsome earth;

The silent stars, the blue and smiling sky,

Beam on its grave as once upon its birth.

Love not, love not!

Love not, love not! The thing you love may change,

The rosy lip may cease to smile on you;

The kindly beaming eye grow cold and strange;

The heart still warmly beat, yet not be true.

Love not, love not!

Love not, love not! O warning vainly said

In present years, as in the years gone by!

Love flings a halo round the dear one’s head,

Faultless, immortal–till they change or die!

Love not, love not!

(1850ish)

If you’ve heard of Caroline Norton (I hope you have), you probably know her not as a poet but as an early, though somewhat accidental, campaigner for the rights of married and divorced women throughout the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to the Wikipedia page (linked above), you might also want to check out this 2006 Guardian article for a sense of Norton’s historical importance. She has one of those stories–an abusive marriage, rumors of affairs with powerful men, the removal of her children by a vindictive husband–that never quite gets told in canonical Victorian fiction. I can think of a couple examples (one of the marriages in Thackeray’s The Newcomes, for instance) where this kind of thing is hinted at, but both the Wikipedia page and the Guardian article give a sense of the complicatedness of Norton’s life–and her legacy. The idea of a mother retaining custody of her children in the case of a divorce or separation is almost our default mode today; it’s hard to even conceptualize a time when a wife could simply not have access to her children.

And, of course, all of this was taking place in the 1830s; it wasn’t until 1882 (several years after Norton’s death) that the Married Women’s Property Act was passed. As the Guardian points out, the divorce case brought by Norton’s husband failed, but left Norton herself in a kind of “legal limbo”–she was, of course, still married to the jerk and remained so until he died in 1875. Which means among other things that she didn’t own the copyright to her own words. Nineteenth-century copyright law is one of my intermittent theoretical interests, and this implication of her case–the linguistic as well as the financial side–strikes me as being just as interesting (if not more so) than the custody thing, only because that’s relatively straightforward by comparison. But I don’t actually have the wherewithal or the expertise to go into this right now.

And I guess I have to confess that I find this to be one of the less compelling poems that I’ve blogged about so far. I chose it largely based on the fact that it speaks to a certain mood that I’m in right now, but I never really had that “aha!” moment when the doubleness of the poem became clear to me while I was typing it out. Even its reversals and ironies (the repetition of “love not,” the futility of the warning, the bitter twist of the word “halo” towards the end) strike me as being somewhat…oh, I don’t know…conventional? Not in a bad sense, really, but just, you know…there it is. It’s certainly teachable, but in a sort of dismal, unsurprising sense; for any real excitement, one would have to draw a bit more on Norton’s biography (as I’ve done above) than I’m completely comfortable with.

Regular readers, of course, know that the biography/interpretation thing is a perpetual conflict of mine that has regularly been played out in these posts. And none of this is to say that I’m sorry it’s here, in the OBVV. Perhaps more than many of the other poems I’ve looked at, it has the virtue of being sort of eminently “representative” of something or other more or less “Victorian”–and that occasionally means leaving less breathing room for the kinds of readings that I like to do here, readings that depend on there being enough of a dislocation or rupture with historical context and original “intention” and all of that to reintroduce an element of surprise and, as much as I hesitate to put it this way, resonance. (I’m thinking of an article by Wai-Chee Dimock that was published in PMLA sometime in the mid-90s and was then taken up by Jay Clayton as a frame for Charles Dickens in Cyberspace, one of the books that made me a Victorianist. I’m also of course borrowing the sentiment from Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” which I believe should be the Derrida you read if you don’t plan to read any other Derrida.) I’m finding that resonance in another one of Norton’s poems I came across this evening. It is not, alas, reprinted in the OBVV, but it speaks perhaps even more closely to my state of mind on this Monday evening.–and yes, Mia, this is sometimes all that I’m looking for–“I Do Not Love Thee”:

I do not love thee!—no! I do not love thee!
And yet when thou art absent I am sad;
And envy even the bright blue sky above thee,
Whose quiet stars may see thee and be glad.
I do not love thee!—yet, I know not why,
Whate’er thou dost seems still well done, to me:
And often in my solitude I sigh
That those I do love are not more like thee!
I do not love thee!—yet, when thou art gone,
I hate the sound (though those who speak be dear)
Which breaks the lingering echo of the tone
Thy voice of music leaves upon my ear.
I do not love thee!—yet thy speaking eyes,
With their deep, bright, and most expressive blue,
Between me and the midnight heaven arise,
Oftener than any eyes I ever knew.
I know I do not love thee! yet, alas!
Others will scarcely trust my candid heart;
And oft I catch them smiling as they pass,
Because they see me gazing where thou art.

I will now proceed to go check my email for the 9,000th time before I go to bed. Till next week, dearies.

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