The determination of love

by Andrea Brady

16 Nov 2017
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Full text of article posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 5, pp. 271-308.

Abstract: This essay explores love poetry in its most militant and perverse forms. It examines three ‘determinations’ of love: first, how love is defined (determined), given that true love always feels new and singular, but language is a repetition engine which can make these professions of love seem quotational; second, why love is fixated on ends, including catastrophe, the apocalypse and death, and how it might be released (de-termined) from that fixation; and third, how love can teach us to be resolute (determined) to close the gap between the world we experience and the one we desire. Love has been described by poets and philosophers as fullness, and as lack or hunger; as fusion, and as splitting; as original, and as serial or repetitive; as the end of time, or a return to its beginnings in the lost paradises of infantile or primitive experience. Love provokes an anamnesis of an archaic experience of the ideal. It is associated with creativity and fecundity. But it also prompts poets to anticipate the catastrophes of death or the destruction of everything that is. That destruction includes the end of poetry itself. Poets from Shakespeare and Marvell to Shelley or Robert Creeley have affirmed love only through risking its negation (and with the negation of love, the negation also of their own poetic practice). Why is love poetry so drawn to the fantasy of destruction? What is the use of love poetry in times of catastrophe? If artistic remembrance—as Herbert Marcuse puts it—‘spurs the drive for the conquest of suffering and the permanence of joy’, how can remembering love through poetry help us to address a new future, particularly one in which the traditional hierarchies that encumber lyric and love itself can be overturned?

Keywords: love poetry, catastrophe, death, lack, Shakespeare, Marvell.

Warton Lecture on English Poetry, read 25 April 2017

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