Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
...no. Are we mere animals, to be aroused by the turning of a season and the depredations of greeting-card salesmen ("Valentine Special! Three for the price of two!")? Are we to fetch up trawling through the announcements in the newspapers, looking for one which applies to us, or which might apply to us, or even one which, at a pinch ("I suppose I secretly always have thought of myself as Floppy-Plops and this Twinksy-Pie does sound quite alluring") might just do? No, we are not, nor is it all what John Donne had in mind. Why, even for myself there are occasions (albeit only very, very occasionally, which is why they are called "occasions") when it seems appropriate to put passion and venery aside and shut up shop for a period of quiet reflection. Yes plants, yea stones detest, And love; All, all some properties invest, Donne continued, but I'm not so sure.
It certainly wouldn't go down well under "New" "Labour". We'd have the "Prime Minister" on daytime television denouncing detestation as deeply offensive and the reference to plants liable to upset the close family relations of those unfortunate enough to be in a persistent vegetative state. Next thing, there would be upheavals at St Paul's, a grim-faced meeting in the Chapter House, tearful claims from Dr Donne that his words had been misconstrued ("I never Donne said them things, claims Dirty Dean") and finally the ignominious expulsion ("Donne For!") No. Stones do not detest, nor do plants. Nor, I think, do they any properties invest at all. You don't run across Cupressa Leylandii with PEP accounts and the average chunk of feldspar could hardly be more improvident when it comes to planning for retirement. Existing in geological time as they do, the moment of incapacitation seems a long way off, like the old Prudential Pensions advertisement ("Age 2,000,000: I Do Not Need To Worry About A Pension Yet") but come it will ("Age 15,800,000: Without A Pension I Really Do Not Know What I Shall Do"). One day they will be sand, but the State will not accept the burden and that will be that.
So here, on the Feast of St Valentine, who had nothing to do with any of it, any more than St Cecilia played the organ, we have to face the truth that perhaps the greatest love-poet of all history got it wrong.
The only creatures that love are us, and if you want a hard proposition, never mind plants and stones; what about traffic wardens? Do they love? Does the fat, shambling oaf I saw stumbling out of his white council van at midnight last night and sticking a ticket on a car which was causing no conceivable inconvenience to anyone, parked in a road down which little traffic ever goes ... does this ambulant pork pie, this dismal low-rent "enforcer" have someone who is the apple of his eye, someone he wishes to protect forever beneath the shade of his sweaty wing? Or bankers. Do bankers love? I know few bankers but the ones I do know are, with only one exception, harsh, rigid, self-obsessed men concerned only with advantage. They appear to dissimulate love to gain for themselves a trophy wife which will increase their status and thus their ability to screw more money out of ... well, out of anyone who comes within their flinty grasping ambit. But love? Do they? Do they weep their tears, push their food aside untasted, feel (albeit temporarily) that their life has become without meaning because their beloved does not care? Well, of course they do, in their fashion, and the most curious thing about the Feast of St Valentine is that it reminds us that this universal human emotion is almost completely inaccessible to observers. Nobody knows what is really happening within a couple's relationship; it is like a black hole, protected by an event horizon beyond which nothing may be seen and from which no information may ever escape. Poets and psychotherapists may attempt to take their toolkit and probe within, but psychotherapy changes the very thing it seeks to examine and poets make the error of believing that they have a special insight into love. The bankerly J Alfred Prufrock was no banker, but the creation of a poet, and thus himself poetical; we can learn nothing from TS Eliot of how a banker might love; we can learn nothing from a banker of how a banker might love. It is an imponderable, secret as night and dark as an embrace.
We buried my mother recently. She didn't want a conventional service, some vicar or rabbi or shaman - you never know who you'll get - on commission and getting her name wrong, so I did it all, leaning companionably on her coffin throughout. My father, a doctor, is not a man of words and had worried that things had been left unsaid but when you speak an obsequy you are the advocate for the living as well as the dead. It was moving to stand in the face of the congregation and tell both them and him that his saving of her life once, and the devotion of his care thereafter, had composed an extended lovesong as eloquent as any poet.
It needn't be fine words and melting caresses; it can be endless cups of tea, the graceful acceptance of decline; it can be Snugglebums and Pipkin, Floppy-Plops and Twinky-Pie; a fat bald man out ticketing in the rain when he'd rather be at home; the two homeless junkies sharing a sleeping-bag in a doorway. Whatever it is, in its silliness and profundity, its transience and ineluctability, we should celebrate it, and if hatchet-faced greeting-card executives profit from it, it's a small price to pay.
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