Examination of Love in Literature, Circa 1400

Love is said to be the most profound experience of life. Love – unrequited, lost, passionate, eternal, faithful and unfaithful – has been a quintessential element through time. Between 1400 and 1750, Renaissance idealism took hold, allowing for vast progressive developments in literature and the fine arts (Seiferth). In 1424, near the very beginning of this grand movement, a Frenchman, Alain Chartier, narrating a story of unrequited love, composed La Belle Dame sans Merci . More than four hundred years later, in 1884, John Keats employed the same title for a similar work centering on lost love. Great writers and philosophers have always ruminated on the subjects of love, time and death; while we may never answer these questions with any absolute certainty, we will all undoubtedly speculate about these topics for centuries to come.

While there are clear differences in style through different social and historical movements, the themes prevail and it is relatively simple to place works of literature into the world’s framework of love and romance. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written somewhere between 1375 and 1400, exhibits a woman pushing herself onto a man while the man resists. In 1424, La Belle Dame sans Merci demonstrates the marvelous, but unrequited efforts of a man. In the late 1500s, William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 demonstrates a man and a woman feigning happiness in love and Romeo and Juliet presents failed love against all odds. The mid 1600s sees again the demonstrations of unanswered love in Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. Finally, love continues to be a popular subject in contemporary literature. Ultimately, the essential qualities of a relationship can be most easily seen through the woman’s behavior towards the man and the man’s response to the woman.
Written during the Middle Ages and immediately prior to the Renaissance era, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides several different views of love through the guise of the chivalric roles of women. Originally, pre-courtly literature provided a more realistic depiction of women, but eventually, courtly literature took over with an increasingly idealistic representation. Just on the cusp of the Renaissance, but having not quite left the Middle Ages, this story represents both realism and idealism in love’s temptations.

On three successive days, Lady Bertalik meets Sir Gawain in his bedchambers and attempts to seduce him. During the first two days, though she is both appealing and persuasive, Sir Gawain manages to remain a model of both courtly and religious restraint; meanwhile, Lady Bertalik is a model of realism. While some women of the time succeeded in being entirely pure, it was not uncommon for women to try and seduce men as they traveled the lands and in the absence of their husbands. On the third day, Lady Bertalik forces Gawain to accept a gift, a girdle. Like Lady Bertalik, the girdle is similar to the depiction of pre-courtly realism – in which women maintained their outward appearance, but also had inner, wild sexual desires that were often unleashed – as it is meant to be tied, but then removed to allow for free movement and expression. In slight contrast, the girdle may also illustrate the courtlier and idealistic viewpoint due to its restrictive qualities, which in theory, forces the girdle-clad to appear as a chaste woman.

Chartier’s original version of La Belle Dame sans Merci of 1424 begins with narration by a man who is overcome with pain at having lost his lover; he writes, “Lete it be written, suche fortune I take,/Whiche neither me nor deth noon other please” (43-44). It is said that “your life goes as your love life goes” and these first stanzas alone prove this to be true by exemplifying the outrageous power that love wields (Pindell). Wrecked with sorrow, the narrator claims that he can no longer write happy thoughts as both he and his pen can never again understand pleasure. In order to temporarily remove him from his misery, the narrator’s friends usher him to a party; though their efforts are well intentioned, the narrator refuses to be detached from his feelings of woe.

The bulk of this work is centered on a conversation that the narrator secretly observes between “la dame” and “l’amant,” in which the lady and the lover argue for minutes upon minutes between intellectual reason and emotional passion. This battle represents another timeless facet of the debate on love, wondering whether we ought to lead with the mind or the heart. One of Shakespeare’s most pervasive plays, Romeo and Juliet, embraces this question as the “star-crossÃ?¨d lovers” attempt to destroy rational thinking in favor of an overwhelming emotional connection. They die.

In the course of their discussion, l’amant says, “Whiche may not be withdrawe – this is no nay -/I must abide al manere aventure,/For I may not put to, ner take away” (498-500). L’amant promises that he will continue to feel passionate about his love obsession well-beyond this moment, he will stand for what he has promised and he will put forth the same intense effort towards her that he is giving on this day. Despite his pleading, his best persuasive efforts and his seemingly heart-felt promises, l’amant – on the side of raw and idealistic emotion – eventually fails to win the heart of the reasonable dame and dies only several days later.

La dame is relentlessly harsh in her judgment of l’amant, always repeating that when relationships are new, many things are excusable by both parties, but that his actions and expressed emotions will eventually become a significant deterrent of their relationship. She also expresses her utter disdain for this man, saying that unlike many other courtly ladies, she is able to see through his claims of virtue and grace; she will not be tricked into accepting any of this man’s gifts, assurances or worship. The title of this work quite literally means, “the lady without thanks” or “the lady without appreciation”. Not only does this lady refuse to consider a relationship with the man, but she insults his efforts and claims that he “âÂ?¦noye[s] me sore in wasting al this winde,/For I have said inought, as semth me” (795-796). She is completely and utterly heartless and the man is left with his heart almost literally torn to shreds. The brief association of this man and this woman demonstrates the anguish of unrequited love.

Love is said to conquer all, it is said to move mountains, it is said to be the greatest of life’s natural highs. And yet, these ideas speak of true love while most of the obsessive men in Renaissance poetry are only capable of crazed “love,” which carries little bearing on reality. Infatuation, obsession and lust are too often mistaken for love. The narrator of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 states, “I do believe her, though I know she liesâÂ?¦simply I credit her false-speaking tongue” (2, 7). While he appears to be aware of the difference between obsession and true love, this man, too, falls just short by ignoring the realities of the situation and resigning himself to blinding emotions.

Once more, in Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, we see the narrator offering insanely false and impossible proposals, “I would/Love you ten years before the Flood;/And you should, if you please, refuse/Till the conversion of the Jews” (8-10). Essentially, this man claims that he will love the object of his affection from before the beginning of time until the end of eternity; just as l’amant insists that his love will remain deep and intense for all time. Both men become engrossed in presenting these melodramatic falsities, but fail to attract the company of the realist women they desire.
Lastly, Keats’ version of La Belle Dame sans Merci ties together these enduring ideas and literary representations of love. The knight briefly finds the woman of his dreams, which immediately serves as a warning that she is not what her faÃ?§ade would otherwise indicate, but he is quickly abandoned. All of those who had previously failed in love and all of those came before this particular knight – Sir Gawain, L’Amant, and Romeo, to name a few – call out. “They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci/Hath thee in thrall!'” (39-40).

All of these works together comprise only a small portion of the eternal conversation on love. In part, literature is designed to teach lessons about life and set a standard of ideals by which to live. These literary works – both versions of La Belle Dame sans Merci, Sonnet 138, Romeo and Juliet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and To His Coy Mistress – all demonstrate the cruelties of love; these particular love stories, as well as many others of their select periods, indicate impossibilities and a certain impending heartache. Still, we discover that while love can be a challenge, we must continue to fight for it against all odds; something capable of causing such immeasurable despair certainly must be able to produce feelings equally as wonderful.

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