Though I am a playwright at heart, there is another kind of poetry that I lavished much time and effort and passion upon: my sonnets.
Sonnets only contain fourteen lines, so you would think that I wouldn’t be able to say much in them. But there you would be wrong. Every time I wrote a sonnet, I issued myself the same challenge: how many ideas and emotions and images could I pack into a mere fourteen lines. I suppose it was, in part, a game for me; but it was always a serious game played for high stakes with goodness, truth, and beauty as its prize.
Many of the sonnets I wrote were about fame and whether it could last beyond one’s death, but the sonnets that were closest to my heart were the ones about love: its power to lift us from despair to hope, its preciousness in a world of death and decay, and its unshakeable immortality.
I’m usually a sanguine, jolly sort of person. Being a playwright and a manager keeps one busy; it doesn’t leave much time for feeling sorry for oneself. Still, my friends of the future, there are times when a fit of melancholy falls upon me. On days like that, I feel as if everyone in the world and even God himself, has turned his back on me. I pray and cry out and complain, but all I get for my troubles is deafening silence. If truth be told, I even start to despise myself a bit.
And when that happens, I start looking around me and wishing that I were someone — anyone! — else. I’m sure that many of you have felt that way. It seems like any random person in the street is smarter or luckier or more talented or more handsome. And even if you can point to something in yourself that makes you unique, you end up rejecting it as petty and worthless.
Well, my friends, I wrote about days like that in my twenty-ninth sonnet — days when I felt isolated, outcast, and alone. But all of that changed when I thought about my beloved. Suddenly, with the rush and speed of a lark soaring upward to heaven, I saw myself in a radically new way: not as I was but as my beloved saw me.
In the eyes of my beloved, I became transformed. No longer did I have to heave up desperate prayers, hoping they would find their way to heaven; on the wings of love, I could almost fly there myself! Then — oh, then — I didn’t want to be anyone but myself. No, I wouldn’t trade places with the monarch of the world.
There’s more magic in true love than in all my fairy plays. Smash your mirrors and turn your gaze away from rivers and pools. See yourself in the eyes of the one who loves you, and there you will find a true medicine for melancholy.
I hear you say to me, love is all well and good when we are young and filled with strength and beauty. But what about when we get older, when age bows us to the earth and robs us of our freshness and our vigor? Does love maintain its power to renew and transform?
I think it does. In fact, I wrote about just that aspect of love in my seventy-third sonnet. Like you, I feared that my beloved would perceive the slow ravages of time drain the color from my hair and the blossom from my cheek. That she would see in me the seasons of life as they moved in their inexorable course from spring to summer to autumn to winter. I feared that when she looked deep into my eyes, she would see the sun setting upon the hill and bleak night swallow up the day.
I felt like a roaring fire that gives heat and warmth for a space, but that burns itself out even as it blazes so strongly. Surely she would see in me those sooty ashes that choke out the very fire that produced them. And when she saw that, I thought, she would abandon me and give her love to another.
But I was wrong. What she saw in me was not the fire that burns out tomorrow but the fire that glows today, now, in this moment that will never come again. She saw that time was brief and could not be held on to, but that made me and our love more precious. It was the transience of time, the fact that the years we had together were so fleeting, that made each day one to be clung to with passion and gratitude.
Remember that, my friends, when you feel the frost of time chill you from within. Remember and take joy that love is dearer for its very impermanence.
And then I wrote another sonnet, number one hundred and sixteen, in which I boldly leapt from the defensive to the offensive, from taking consolation to declaring victory. This time I would celebrate love’s triumph over all obstacles, its absolute constancy in a world of ceaseless change. I hope I will not sound boastful if I declare it my greatest poem on love!
When a man who trades in precious metals wants to test the integrity of a piece of gold, he rubs it against a touchstone. Then, by the mark it leaves upon the stone, he can determine whether or not the gold is true. Love is just such a touchstone. Like the North Star against which sailors mark their course on the open sea, it is a fixed and stable point that does not change when time and tide and people do.
In your world as in my own, dear friends, we need such stars, such touchstones on which we can rely fully. We need something that is not the plaything of fashion or of chance or of time. Something that stays true even to the end of all things. Love is not the slave of time, for it shall endure when death itself shall die.
Do I know for certain, you may ask, whether or not love has this immortal power? I must admit, I do not. All I know is that if it does not, then neither I nor any man or woman of any age or clime has ever truly loved.
And I have never written a thing.
Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; he is the author of 22 books, including The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, Literature: A Student’s Guide, and three Canon Press Worldview Guides to the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid.