"Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita", by Henry Holiday (1839 - 1927)

Unrequited love is not love. Not in the strictest sense. For love to be love, it must be returned – this is the glory and goal of love. Rainer Maria Rilke knows this glory well, though he smiles at it perhaps darkly, saying thus to lovers:

Ich weiß,
ihr berührt euch so selig, weil die Liebkosung verhält,
weil die Stelle nicht schwindet, die ihr, Zärtliche,
zudeckt; weil ihr darunter das reine
Dauern verspürt.

I know
you touch each other so blessedly because at each caress
your bodies do not shrink away, as you – tenderly –
drown in one other; because beneath each other you sense
tangible permanence.

Duino Elegies [translation mine]

Unrequited love has all the ardor for permanence, but nothing tangible to grasp. No one to hold. It is not love. And yet unrequited love is the cousin virtue of love. It is the companion of those who would love but cannot, and the friend of every saint. It is the stuff of poems, so popular the sub genre has its own term: complaint. Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint is perhaps the most famous of this type, whether or not he is its true author. He is the poet of poets, and this primordial English poem of complaint is his at least in title, as the Song of Songs is Solomon’s.

In poetry, unrequited love is transfigured into the searing image of wounded desire – a sweet agony. John Keats, the great genius of Romantic decadence, entwines melancholy and delight:

She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

– excerpt, Ode to Melancholy

The peculiar quality of unrequited love is its unbearable torment as it yearns for what is not its own. This was once considered beautiful. But when we think of it, in these days of reeling cynicism, we often think of unbalanced stalkers or miserable love songs. Unrequited love is at best annoying, at worst deranged. In poetry, however, the image burns like an eternal mystic seal, never to be quenched. Its pain is its glory, its sorrow sweet.

How odd that we can embrace such an agony. It is more natural to flee from suffering than to delight in it, but in this one instance – this one strange glimmer of the world’s hidden design – doomed lovers cling to their wrecked hearts and sink down, dissolve in tears, instead of relinquishing their love. The love that is not theirs, and that lives in them only as a ghost of what might have been. It is altogether puzzling, and in more than one respect: they behold what they cannot possess, and in so doing possess it in the form of forlorn hope; they bind themselves to the will of their object, the one who will not love them in return, bowing to the irretrievable distance between lover and beloved; they rise in the ecstasy of a living death, unable to cease aching for the one who wounds them with indifference.

Thus much and more; and yet thou lov’st me not,
And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will.
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.

– Lord Byron, excerpt, Love and Death

Poetry cannot cease its contemplation of unrequited love any more than it can dismember itself. Yearning is the soul of poetry, and its vision consists in the embrace of realities that are not its own. The poet sees ever before him what is beyond his grasp, and his words give trembling shape to an insatiable thirst. The nature of poetry is to be an unanswered vow, an outstretched hand. Only, with poetry, the shadows of what might be – unknown to us all – are given color and form. Given a thousand successive images, carved in careful lyricism. This is the poet’s iron task, the mission to which he is bidden to give voice and to which he is irrevocably chained.

In poets floating like a water-flower
Upon the bosom of the glassy hour,
In skies that no man sees to move,
Lurk untumultuous vortices of power,
For joy too native, and for agitation
Too instant, too entire for sense thereof,
Motion like gnats when autumn suns are low,
Perpetual as the prisoned feet of love
On the heart’s floors with pain-ed pace that go.
From stones and poets you may know
Nothing so active is, as that which least seems so.

– Francis Thompson, excerpt, “Contemplation

The poet thus shares a family resemblance to the great Christian mystics of the past, those who, enflamed with love for God, feel every inch of their distance from him. Helpless for images to describe their frustration and their ecstasy, they, too, draw on unrequited love. Though aware – painfully aware – of God’s love for them, they are drawn further by his withdrawal. They are led deeper into the night by heightening sensitivity to God’s inexhaustible mystery. They can never fully possess God, but oh – their desire stretches to an infinity that mirrors God’s own. As God says to Catherine of Siena in her Dialogue, “Thus is your desire infinite, otherwise it would be worth nothing, nor would any virtue of yours have any life if you served Me with anything finite.” It is the harshest and sweetest of agonies. John of the Cross, the great mystic-poet, asks God questions in lines only a lover can speak:

Why, after wounding
This heart, hast Thou not healed it?
And why, after stealing it,
Hast Thou thus abandoned it,
And not carried away the stolen prey?

– excerpt, Song of the Soul and the Bridegroom

Unrequited love becomes a cypher for unlocking the mysteries of holiness. Its symptoms, so human, are transformed in the paradox of the cross – made now into the pained delight of the soul’s increasing union with God. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross’s incisive counterpart, explains:

It [the soul] is conscious of having received a delicious wound but cannot discover how, nor who gave it, yet recognizes it as a most precious grace and hopes the hurt will never heal. The soul makes amorous complaints to its Bridegroom, even uttering them aloud; nor can it control itself, knowing that though He is present He will not manifest Himself so that it may enjoy Him. This causes a pain, keen although sweet and delicious from which the soul could not escape even if it wished; but this it never desires. This favour is more delightful than the pleasing absorption of the faculties in the prayer of quiet which is unaccompanied by suffering.

– excerpt, Interior Castle

Even God himself is described as a spurned lover, as in Ezekiel and Hosea. Or, more pointedly, the vivid poetry of the Song of Songs becomes both a Jewish and Christian analogy for the soul’s relationship with God. It is described in piercing erotic terms. But God’s faithfulness is not always returned, and these images reach a kind of height on the cross, where God becomes the ultimate unrequited lover (and indeed the old devotion the Sacred Heart is meant to uncover this insight). Hated by everyone but his mother, Christ cries out as a man of unconditional love – whose love is not answered.

But God is effective where we are not, and the God-man himself is both call and answer. Here unrequited love meets its inward form and is surpassed, and all who love without hope receive the internal shape of their hope. They burn with the indelible Paschal Flame.

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