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.

Smashing Mr Thornton

I couldn’t believe my eyes  while I was reading a comment of one of my students to a post on Gaskell’s “North and South”. It was not a comment, actually, but rather, a deliberate attempt to pull apart piece after piece the romantic aura that surrounds Mr Thornton,  who actually shares the top step of the podium along with Mr Darcy for the most iconic and beloved male character of 19th century  English literature. He found faults in a man who has always been considered fault proof; he regarded weak the one who has always been the epitome of strength for any woman; he even found immoral traits in the uncontroverted  picture  and quintessence of  moral behaviour.

LADIES (angry): To the gallows!!!” “Blasphemy!!🤬🤬🤬

MRS TINK : “But, my dear ladies, calm down! I believe that even  this irreverent  young  man has the right to be tried first, so let’s hear what he has to say. He asserts that our minds have been clouded by the romantic charm of this character – well, that could be, especially since  Mr Thornton took the semblance of Richard Armitage, we must admit it –  and that, let me read, “the man appears systematically unable to take a single good decision in any field of his life”.

LADIES (super angry):To the gallooooows!!!🤬🤬🤬

MRS TINK : C’mon ladies, don’t rush into conclusion. He may have some good points! Let him speak his mind first and eventually we will decide what to do. Just cool down!(whispers) Ohhh, good ….so, he was just saying that some of Mr Thornton’s decisions were wrong…..

STUDENT (aside): All!😑

MRS TINK (To the student): Oh! Shut up! I’m m trying to save you from this angry bunch of ladies!🤨

STUDENT (boldly to the ladies): It is under everybody’s eye  that Mr Thornton’s business fails, can you prove the contrary?😏

MRS TINK and The Ladies: No, we can’t. But…..😧

STUDENT (more audaciously): Furthermore, he does not prevent the strike and hires the Irish in the mill provoking violent reactions.😏

MRS TINK🤨 : How could he have prevented the strike? He had no means to give the rise in salary the workers demanded and he was not alone in this, after all, there were other manufacturers.

STUDENT: “Yes,  but he was the most influent one, wasn’t he the magistrate of Milton? But, I have not finished yet. He proposes to Margaret even if he knows that she will probably refuse him and then he commits an abuse of power deciding not to investigate the same Margaret!😧

LADIES (in unison):  But he did it for love! He wanted to protect her! How insensitive!😮

STUDENT : I know, but that was actually a crime, or do you have another word to call it?😏

LADIES: We cannot listen to this nonsense any longer!😤😤😤

STUDENT (raising his voice): One more thing! He does not join his brother-in law’s speculation  and doing so, not only he loses all his wealth, but he also does not overcome the trauma of his father’s death. The very few good decisions such as hiring Higgins, for example, derive, directly or indirectly, from Margaret. Please forgive me ladies, but I did find hilarious seeing your romantic hero, the strong self-made man, the passionate lover with the endless sideburns, saved by a presumptuous 20-year-old girl from the South. Now I’m done. Thank you.😏😑😑😑

LADIES:(silence)😲😲😲

MRS TINK: (trying to break the silence). So you mean that Thornton is a loser .🤨

STUDENT: That’s what I mean.😑

MRS TINK: Well, I guess you should have thought about what makes Mr Thornton a loser first, in your eyes at least . To make you understand my point, I want to compare him to one of the greatest “losers” in world literature.

STUDENT: Who is it?🤔

MRS TINK: Hamlet. If you remember his story, we may say that Hamlet, to use your own words, appears “systematically unable to take a single good decision in any field of his life”: father, mother, Ophelia, the revenge plans etc.  He, actually, never truly acts, and if he does, it’s just because he cannot avoid it. Three seconds after talking to his father’s ghost, the initial flame of rage starts to put out and soon he feels unfit for his demand of revenge. Even in the last act, when he finally revenges his father’s death killing his uncle, he doesn’t even know how he found himself in that situation, as the duel with Laertes is actually his uncle’s trap in order to kill him. Have you ever considered Hamlet a loser?🤨

STUDENT: A victim maybe?🤔

MRS TINK: In a way he is a victim, but he is the victim of his conscience and conscience , he says, makes us all cowards, that is, unable to act freely, because we cannot avoid the burden of the moral implications of our actions. The ethical dilemma between what is right or wrong consumes our will, and thus “ the native hue of resolution, is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Undoubtedly, the name of the comet star that guides Mr Thornton’s action is: ethics. He always tries to do what is right, even if he knows that it will not end up as he wishes, as in the case of Margaret’s rejection or when he hires the Irish. Had he been ruthless, he would have employed them much before, it is also because of this delay in taking this decision that he loses all. It’s in this constant search for the correct thing to do, his attempt to overcome the trauma of his father’s death.🤨

STUDENT(puzzled): So you mean that ethics and success cannot go hand in hand?🤔

MRS TINK: Correct.🙄

STUDENT: And that Mr Thornton‘s comet star is ethics.🤔

MRS TINK: Exactly.🙄

STUDENT: So, he is a loser.😑

MRS TINK😒: If you measure a man by means of his profits, yes, he is. But a man is more than the money he can make. I’m talking about other qualities such as sensibility, reliability, courage, sacrifice, the capacity to love; Mr Thornton is all this and more. Hence, he could never be a loser for us all, my dear. Never.😍😍😍

LADIES: To the gallows?😡😡😡

MRS TINK: No…….Student, stand up! You are sentenced to watch the BBC series again twice and read the book. You will produce then another comment on the topic and if we can spot some evidence of your redemption, we might even let you live. Off you go!

(Exeunt)

What’s in a Name?

“What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title..” (Romeo and Juliet. Act 2, Scene 2)

Dazzled by the darts of love, Juliet speculates on the nature of names. Names are immaterial, yet, they can become insurmountable obstacles. They cannot be touched or seen, yet, they belong to a man and may mark his fate, even if, of course, they cannot change his essence, whatever it may be. Therefore, names matter. If if weren’t so, my mother wouldn’t have opposed so strongly to the one which was destined to me: Rosaria. I should have been named after my grandfather Rosario, and even if the its origin, Rose, may sound evocative and sweet, here it connotes the typical woman of the South of past tradition and my mother, a modern woman of the North, would have never accepted it. That name did not fit the image she had of her daughter, that’s why she chose Stefania. Fortunately, my grandfather, a mild, sensible man, didn’t mind, after all, I was the last of his many grandchildren and some of them had already been named after him.

Names are clearly evocative, they give an impression, often deceptive, of a person. That is why writers have always chosen carefully the names of their most important heroes or heroines. Think about Heathcliff, for example. It is a name that reflects its complex nature. He is heat, that is passionate, hot, but also destructive and dangerous. He is the fire that attracts you like a magnet, but if you touch it, you’ll get burnt. As for that cliff, it evokes harshness and danger again, in fact, waves move naturally towards cliffs and inevitably break. It is their fate. Would that character have worked likewise, had he been called, Jack, for instance?

I’ll leave Gwendolen to give the answer to this question in the “Importance of Being Earnest”:

“Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.”

It is a no. Gwendolen believes that names reflect the essence of men, and she wishes that the appropriate title for her future husband should be Earnest:

“…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”

Of course he is a liar, with a charming name, of course.

Even Walter Shandy, in Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy”, believes that names are as important to a person’s character as noses are to a person’s appearance. As Dr Slop had flattened his child’s nose in performing a forceps delivery, Walter Shandy believes that a solution to compensate him from what he believes to be a clear mark of loss of masculinity, would be to give him a grand name like Hermes Trismegistus, that is, “Hermes the thrice-greatest”. So, he needs a name “three times the greatest” to make things even. Trismegistus was also the name a legendary character: the greatest king, lawgiver, philosopher, priest and engineer ever. After all, isn’t this what all parents dream for their children? A grand, successful future and a good name may be a good start. Unfortunately, Mr Shandy’s hopes are definitively crushed, as his child is accidentally christened Tristram, which comes from the French “triste”  and from the Latin “tristis,” that is “sad” in English, with a final effect which is not exactly what Walter Shandy had hoped, but, quite the reverse. Tristram himself believes that this event has radically changed the course of his fate. So, what’s in a name?

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”(L.M.Montgomery)

 

Does conscience make cowards of us all?

Hamlet is a loser. He turns out to be completely inadequate to the call to action of his father’s ghost, who wants to be rightfully revenged by his son. Yet, he had accurately chosen the most effective words to describe how his brother Claudius had atrociously murdered him and the “horrible“consequences on his body in order to stir Hamlet’s sense of indignation. Eventually, as if he doubted his son’s inclination to action, the ghost even warns him saying: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not“. If. He was not wrong in mistrusting his son, in fact, once alone on stage and soon after a first flame of rage Hamlet hesitates and ponders :”The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,That ever I was born to set it right!”

Can the words of a ghost, even if in the shape of a beloved father, be trusted thus becoming a murderer in turn? Can it be easily accepted that an uncle, a man who Hamlet had instinctively always despised, of course, but who had recently married his mother and become the King of Denmark, might be a criminal? He wants to do what is right, which means finding evidence to his father’s words and only then planning his revenge.

To set everything right he needs time, but time could be the worst enemy of action. At first he pretends to have become mad, in order to act more freely and then he organizes  “the mouse’s trap”, that is a play to be shown at court which displays the way his father had been murdered as the ghost had told him, thus being able to check his uncle’s response at the sight of the faithful reproduction on stage of his foul crime.

Claudius cannot disguise his agitation. He had been unmasked by that nephew he had always distrusted, but how could he know it? It doesn’t matter and runs away to find refuge in the quietness of the chapel in the castle. Now Hamlet has his proof, he could accomplish his father’s task and follows Claudius to the chapel determined to kill him. He is right behind his uncle’s back  while he is in the act of praying, when he hesitates again. Is it right to murder even a criminal, while the latter is purging his soul thus having the gates to heaven open , while his fathers fasts in hell as he died unconfessed? It is not.

His forced inaction arises a bitter sense of frustration that makes him lose focus. He kills Polonius by mistake and then violently takes it out on his mother for having yielded to his uncle and married him. He behaves as a headless fly in a jar and exactly in that moment the ghost re-appears to remind his son the true object of his revenge. But it is too late. Claudius is now aware of how dangerous that nephew might be for him and quickly entraps him in a final duel. Only on that occasion, when he realizes that there no way out and nothing to lose Hamlets eventually acts and kills Claudius.

Hence, Hamlet is a loser and maybe a coward too. However, the feeling of powerlessness that pervades him and causes the delay of any action has a name: conscience. That’s why:
“………………….. the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.”

In short that means that the noble effort of following the principle of morality, trying to pursue what is right, pondering the consequences of any decision undertaken cannot but weaken our determination and expose ouselves to other’s resolutions. Hamlet once again embodies very well our sense of helplessness of this age which I perceive so “out of joint“.