For me, I’d say the greatest poetry is sometimes written by those who pine away hopelessly; by those who are devoted to and/or obsessed by someone who will (almost certainly) never (be able to) return their affections — that which waxes poetic about unrequited love (saudade). This is so from Sappho and Catullus through the medieval courtly love tradition; through Shakespeare and Spenser; through the latter-day Romantics, to the recent British poet laureates.
This is one take on unrequited love by the poet W. H. Auden. “If equal affection cannot be,” pens Auden, “Let the more loving one be me.”
The More Loving One
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
— W. H. Auden
Stevie Smith’s “Pad, Pad” is penned by one of the twentieth century’s most eccentric poets. It is spoken by someone whose lover sat down and told them that they no longer love them. The animal suggestion of padding rather than walking, as well as the ‘tigerish crouch’ of the departing lover, are typical of the way Smith writes and, as many have argued before me, make this poem all the more affecting.
I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.
What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.
— Stevie Smith
Carol Ann Duffy’s “Warming Her Pearls” is narrated by a maid who clearly harbours a secret love and burning desire for her mistress. It is very sensual and talks to us of unrequited or impossible to fulfil love. Might though the Lady one day entertain and sate her maid’s desires? This is not an inconceivable outcome, she can’t but not know about her desires for her — the parting of the red-lips — and maybe she’s somehow not being fulfilled sexually herself I like to imagine a lesbian Lady Chatterley type tryst here. But whatever to my digressions read it and breath in and soak up the kind of desire that keeps one wide awake in the depths of night.
Warming Her Pearls
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,
resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.
She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.
I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.
Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…. Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way
she always does…. And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.
— Carol Ann Duffy
What you on about Jay?