How Do I Love Thee?

What are soul mates? In his Symposium Plato gave a very fascinating answer: a soul originally was a perfect sphere, which was cut in two halves. One half of the soul went to your body, while the other found abode in your soulmate’s body. Since then, we keep searching that missing part for our entire life and if we are lucky enough to find it: BANG! It is like two magnets ‘attraction: strong, irreversible.  For Plato any other relationship different from the bond which arouse from that natural attraction could not work, just because it was not meant to be. In fact, if you reverse the polarity of one magnet,  they repel. Despite your efforts there is no way to keep together those repelling  magnets for long : it is not in the laws of nature. At that point  you may choose whether to live hopefully  a satisfactory but empty life with the wrong partner or to keep searching for that special kind of connection, which you can experience only with your soul mate.

Of course the paths of love are the most unexpected.  Elizabeth Barret Browning’s path was poetry. Dominated by her possessive father, Elizabeth spent most of her time alone. She found consolation writing poems. This how her missing half, poet Robert Browning, found her. He had come across her writings and felt that power, that connection of the souls and wrote asking to meet her. They eventually fell in love and the intensity of their feelings can be felt in any line of the letters they exchanged before eloping to Italy, like in the following excerpt:

“For I have none in the world who will hold me to make me live in it, except only you – I have come back for you alone…at your voice…and because you have use for me! I have come back to live a little for you. I love you – I bless God for you – you are too good for me, always I knew.

In her famous sonnet “How do I love thee?” she means to define her intense feelings and the ways in which the love for her husband can be expressed. But how can love be explained when it stretches over the limits of reason?

“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.”

In fact, Elizabeth Browning  finds insufficient to measure it by means of a rational language – “depth”, “breadth”,” height”-  and chooses to express the immensity of their soul connection through words  such as  “soul”, “being” and “grace”. A spiritual, but passionate love at the same time which goes beyond the limits of death itself.

Also young Juliet knew well how the connection of two souls worked. Once she meets her  half in Romeo she finds herself in a whirl of emotions which transcends space and time:

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”

(Romeo and Juliet. Act II, Scene II)

The meeting of the two magnets lights up the sparkle of love , which darts Romeo and Juliet in a new overwhelming dimension , where they are no longer bodies , where time and the disputes of their families can’t affect them, where there is no fear; there they become infinite in Plato’s unique perfect wholeness again.

But, what happens  if  the two soul mates cannot enjoy their love despite the force of  their magnetic attraction, for any reason? In Wuthering Heights , Catherine finds her soul mate in Heathcliff. She is well aware of that, in fact, she refers to him saying :“I am Heathcliff” or even more: “He is more myself than I am”. Rules of society forbids a connection to somebody so below to her station, hence, she yields to those rules, marrying the best catch the marriage market offered, Edgar Linton, who is even a good sort of man, but he is not her half. The comparison between the two men is merciless: Catherine compares the intensity of  her feelings for Edgar to images like “moonbeam” and “frost” while her love for Heathcliff takes the form of “lightening” and “fire”. Marrying Edgar, the tension between the two halves Catherine and Heathcliff, who remain close but cannot complete each other, becomes toxic and will inevitably lead to a tragic outcome.

A soul marriage doesn’t provoke any such tragedies. It cannot fear anything according to Donne, even a long separation. It is steadfast love. In his poem “Valediction : Forbidding Mourning”, which was written for his wife Anne before he left on a trip to Europe, Donne tells his wife that theirs is not a real separation , because their love is spiritual and transcendent, they are soul mates, and soul mates are always connected: a connection of minds rather than bodies. So there is no need to cry. Those who believe that love corresponds to physical attraction, those “dull sublunary lovers” cannot admit absence, because they love the body. Hence, if the body has to leave they cannot any longer have love, so let them cry.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

But his leaving cannot alter their love, because as she loves his mind, his mind cannot go away. It is ever present. Then he introduces one of the most convincing metaphor to describe how beautifully connected they are:  a compass. One leg of the compass  must be grounded to allow the other one to spread and go out to make a circle. So, the poet  says to his wife that to make a perfect circle he has to leave  and that the only way he can make that trip and come back is that she stays where she is. Because she grounds him.

And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.


17 thoughts on “How Do I Love Thee?

  1. I remain a skeptic about the whole notion of soul mates, but you’ve reminded me of how much we do enjoy drama and tragedy, or “angst, misery, and woe” as I call it. The Twilight series with the vampires, is all about soul mates, the drama and angst of it all, and I think that is big part of its success.

    • In one word, what we do enjoy in stories, drama etc. is what the Germans call “Sehnsucht”: the desire of desire. We delight in the pain suffered while craving for that someone or something. And when you eventually get what you want: the end. And we are ready to start afresh.

  2. I am so glad that you like my very favourite John Donne poem. And, of course, though it is about spiritual connection with his wife, there is also the allusion to the pleasures of the flesh on his return…

    • True, and it is very clear. After all that talking about connections of minds the allusion catches you by surprise . But at least he is not hypocrite. I understand he is fine with minds, but having mind and body together and a wife waiting for him while he is on a “business” trip, so much the better! 😜

  3. Romantics (myself included) find the idea appealing (and a good subject for fiction), but I fear not only is it not anchored in reality, but may even be detrimental to healthy relationships because it sets a high bar and makes it appear as if requiring no effort. Meaning, it makes it that more difficult to surmount any difficulties because it’s assumed there should be little to no difficulties if it was “meant to be”.

    Humans seem attracted to ideas and notions that bring import beyond the mundane (religion, quests, causes, etc.) so it’s natural it spills into interpersonal relationships. Humans want, crave, significance to their existence, and significance to the details of their lives. It can’t just be something that happens or mere chance … it must be destiny!

    Don’t get me wrong; there must be an initial attraction (unfortunately, in many cases too superficial to last, as in when it’s primarily physical) and compatibility is, of course, necessary as a basis for a long-term relationship. But, it also requires effort. After all, even magnets have to be properly aligned or the attraction is not only absent, but the opposite is true.

    I love my wife and she’s the most important thing in my life, but that’s a conscious decision reinforced by 47 years of being committed to each other. We count each other lucky to have found each other, and the idea that it was “meant to be” diminishes the value of our commitment by removing the importance of our conscious effort in the success of the relationship. If it was meant to be, we’re just passengers as opposed to conductors.

    However, the idea is, as I said, appealing, especially in fiction (which I much prefer to poetry):

    Redux: A Second Person POV Self-Challenge

    • On this matter we think the same way. There must be commitment to make things work . As you said, the magnets must be aligned. Let me tell you, that as far as I can understand after years of posts and comments, that you must be a very sensitive and romantic person indeed. I am sure I am not wrong.🙂

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