Romance and Valentine’s Day: An Interview with Dr Danijela Kambaskovic-Schwartz

 

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini 1855 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Figure 1: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1855. Courtesy of Tate Creative Commons.

What are you passionate about?

I am passionate about many things, but I am most passionate about my husband and my family, the deep love and peace we have in our home and our shared dreams. All of my other passions – my career, my individual dreams, my jazz music, my food and the house we are building – while genuine passions that inform my daily life, come second to that.

How was romance perceived between 1100 and 1800?

The word ‘romance’ did not mean what it means today. Romance was a literary genre, a third-person story that told the adventures of a knight. These adventures included saving damsels in distress and falling in love, but these were not the main concerns of the plot. The main concerns were the overcoming of evil, the quest for good and enactment of heroic masculinity.

Around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, under the influence of sonnet sequences – a new type of literary romance genre telling the story of a tortured poet and his unsatisfied longing for an elusive, virtuous woman – a genre championed by Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarch, and highly popular – began to emerge. This type of romance was written in the first person and focused on the interiority of the narrator.

Some of these stories were written in chains of poems, and others in prose; but, often, love and writing were the primary focal points of their plots. The narrators were mostly male. As time went on, the prose romances became more popular and the vogue for poem sequences waned. It is from these types of romances – written in prose, turning towards female protagonists and becoming more complex over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – that today’s word ‘romance’ emerged, to suggest ‘a story of love’.

What is the most romantic poem by Shakespeare? Why?

This question will have as many answers as there are Shakespeare readers! Canonically, the one that is always taught is ‘Sonnet 18’. In my view, this is not the most interesting love sonnet by Shakespeare, although it is worth studying as an excellent example of perfect English sonnet form.

800px-sonnets1609titlepage
Figure 2: Title page from William Shakespeare’s Sonnets (London, 1609). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I have many favourites where Shakespeare’s Sonnets are concerned, but since I must choose one, I choose ‘Sonnet 31’. It ends with these lines:

Thou art the grave where buried love doth live
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give,
That due of many now is thine alone:
Their images I loved, I view in thee,
And thou (all they) hast all the all of me.

To readers today, who are used to the simplicity of pop music lyrics, these verses may seem unduly convoluted. What is all this talk of graves, trophies and body parts? What does it all mean?

The reason for this poem’s complexity is the complexity of the moment it depicts: the very language of the poem reflects its gutting difficulty.

It is about the moment we decide to take the plunge and love someone, even when we have been betrayed many times before. This is not a poem about two innocent people falling in love for the first time; it is about two mature adults with baggage, facing each other.

Battered and hurt, you face your lover with all of your tears, all of your truth, pain, trust and hope. You know you are not whole anymore: each of your former lovers took a part of you with them. You also know that you were not entirely blameless in the betrayals you experienced: you too took trophies from your former lovers, and carry them with you.

And now – mute with dread – you face your lover. You want him to know and cherish the ghosted parts that your former lovers have taken away from you. You want him to be to be the keeper of the trophies you have taken from battles with your former lovers, which you want to be rid of forever. Your new lover will be the grave in which you will bury your former hopes; and you will compare him to those who came before (this is the meaning of the line ‘their images I loved, I view in thee’). You are now, in one dark, breathless moment, offering him all of your pieces – bruised, battered, dissected by previous experiences – the ‘all the all’ of you. And you decide to hope.

I cannot read these lines without tears.

How did poems start?

Poems started as stories. The oldest work of European literature, The Iliad, was composed in verse, as were most ancient stories. Prose as a means of telling stories is a much more recent phenomenon.

Other types of poems – shorter ones that tell a personal truth in a poignant way – are called ‘lyrical’ poems. (This is the kind of poem that we, today, refer to when we say ‘a poem’.)

Over the centuries, writers have played with literary genres, including poems, so they are rarely clear-cut. For instance, Renaissance poets often referred in their poems to biblical stories, stories by Roman and Greek authors, or used them to promote their own or one another’s works.

Shakespeare wrote his Sonnets – a sequence of 154 sonnets meant to be read sequentially, which we almost never do today – to tell the story of a poet tortured by his feelings for a young man and a dark-skinned woman who had an affair with each other. They also reveal evidence of anxiety concerning his social rank and quality as a poet, as well as bravado and self-confidence.

Shakespeare wrote his Sonnets in order to respond to – and yet redefine and make new – the way Renaissance readers perceived the genre of the sonnet sequence. And this, I believe, is the way every writer should approach their craft.

How did the interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets change over time? 

While Shakespeare’s plays and narrative poems were very well received in his lifetime, there is almost no contemporary response to his Sonnets. It is as if the poems were too confronting, or too obscure, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

thomas_banks_shakespeare_attended_by_painting_and_poetry_c_1789
Figure 3: Engraving by Benjamin Smith of Thomas Banks’s relief sculpture Shakespeare Attended by Painting and Poetry. Originally placed above the entrance to John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery in 1789, and re-erected in New Place Garden, Stratford, in 1870. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Systematic criticism of Shakespeare’s Sonnets begins much later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The work has always divided opinion. Some critics believe that this was Shakespeare’s ultimate achievement; others that it is a work that falls well below the standard of his plays.

The story that underpins the Sonnets has been subjected to much ghoulish scrutiny as a source of autobiographical information, and there have been numerous – if unsuccessful – attempts to reorder the sonnets in such ways where they ‘make more sense’.

Attempts have also routinely been made to deny or hide the fact that more than two thirds of the sonnets are addressed to a man (as is often the case with ‘Sonnet 18’ – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ – which is traditionally taught to schoolchildren as an example of a romantic sonnet, but without the relevant context).

I like to regard Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a part of a long and very popular literary tradition of the sonnet sequence, which swept across Europe for over four centuries. In this type of work, a poet would string together individual poems to tell his story about the pitfalls of love and writing. This tradition includes most major English Renaissance poets alongside Shakespeare.

Viewing Shakespeare’s Sonnets in the context of this tradition makes me respect, all the more, what Shakespeare did differently from the other poets who wrote in it. His is the only sequence that I know of which addresses poems to both a man and a woman, and expresses complex feelings of betrayal, abjection, hope and soaring elation, only to end on a note of despair and circularity. It is a truly great work of art – but not the saccharine kind.

What are the top myths about St Valentine’s Day?

Myth no. 1: This is an ancient holiday.

St Valentine may have been a saint who lived in ancient Rome and ministered to early Christians, but in historical terms the holiday itself is very recent: the custom started in the nineteenth century and its boom coincides with the availability of printed cards.

Myth no. 2: This is a custom that celebrates one special person in your life.

This may be the custom now, but the original custom was to express your feelings to someone you liked or fancied. It was a normal occurrence to send multiple cards to different people. This continued amongst adults as the primary custom until the 1950s. It still happens today amongst children and teenagers.

 Myth no 3: It is customary to buy roses, toys, chocolates and take your loved one for dinner.

This may be the custom now, but the original custom was to make or buy a card and fill it with complimentary platitudes, such as ‘roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, but not as sweet as you’, or ‘you are my Valentine’.

Myth no 4: Valentine’s Day, in its current form, celebrates love in its purest, most disinterested form.

On the contrary, today’s celebrations of Valentine’s Day are orgies of consumerism and important contributors to the national economies of the countries that celebrate it. (Not all Western countries do, for this very reason.) That being said, we do celebrate it because we want to do something for the person we love, and this gives us the opportunity. Nevertheless, here’s hoping that St Valentine’s Day will not be the only day of the year we go out for dinner!

Danijela Kambaskovic-Schwartz is a former Lecturer in Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies at The University of Western Australia and a Duration Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe, 1100–1800). She has published widely in the fields of genre history and history of ideas and is an award-winning poet. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Internal Monologues (Fremantle Press, 2013) and the edited collection, Conjunctions: Body, Mind and Soul in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods (Springer, 2014).

 

 

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