WHEN I WAS ONE-AND-TWENTY: PAID FOR IN PAIN

Romance is a very strange thing.

It is a kind of psychological obsession with another person — an obsession so strong that it gives that other person control over whether the obsessed is happy or unhappy.  It gives one soaring emotional highs and abyssal emotional lows.  It can lead to the most bizarre behavior.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about romance is that it is not voluntary.  One does not consciously choose to be “in love” with another person.  Instead, it is something happening on a largely unconscious level — something that seems to unaccountably happen to a person, the passive victim.

The Greeks and Romans thought of it as being shot by the arrow of Eros, the god of love, who lives on in our modern images of Cupid.  As in the old cartoons, once one is shot with Cupid’s arrow, one no longer has control over one’s feelings, and is led on a wild roller coaster ride of emotion.

To the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the process of falling in love involved the unconscious projection of one’s ideal inner concept of a male or female on another person.  Now that person was unlikely to really possess all of those idealized qualities, but as long as that “outer” person made a good screen onto which the unconscious mind could project those qualities, what the obsessed person saw was not the male or female as he or she actually was, but rather only the projection of the unconscious ideal.

English: Cupid with a Bow by François Joseph B...

Cupid with a Bow by François Joseph Bosio at the Hermitage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That accounts for all the stupid things people do when “in love.”

The American psychologist Dorothy Tennov — in her book Love and Limerence – the Experience of Being in Love —  had a very sensible approach to the whole matter.  She made a useful distinction between genuine love and what she called “limerence.”  Limerence is what we ordinarily think of as “falling in love,” the obsession with another person that fills our thoughts and forces us through those emotional highs and lows, depending on whether we think our “love” is being sufficiently reciprocated or not.  Real love, however, is something else — something less exciting but far more lasting than limerence, which glows with such a strong flame that it eventually burns itself out, leaving one wondering what he or she previously saw in the other person.

Now one can discuss all of this intellectually; one can warn the young against it, explaining the difference between real, lasting love and the obsession of limerence.  But such explanations are not likely to prevent the occurence of “falling in love,” simply because it is a largely unconscious process.  As Carl Jung wrote, we are not master in our own house.  It is all too easy for unconscious obsession to take control, in spite of the conscious will.

Alfred Edward Housman wrote one of the best-known poems about the first experience of this unconscious obsession with another.  It is called When I was One-and-Twenty:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;

A young man 21 years old hears a wise and experienced older person warning against “falling in love.”  It is better, he is told, to give away one’s money than to give away one’s heart — better, that is, than to allow one’s self to “fall in love” with another, to give them control over one’s emotional state.

“Crowns and pounds and guineas” were units in the British monetary system of Housman’s day (and right up to 1971).  A pound, when a gold coin, was called a sovereign; when paper, it was a pound note or in slang, a “quid.”  A pound consisted of 20 shillings, which in slang were “bob.”  A crown coin (seldom actually used) was five shillings, “five bob.”  A guinea was considered a more “formal” unit, more “gentlemanly,” though it may seem an odd concept.  Works of art, for example, were customarily priced in guineas.  Years ago, when I was quite young, I was in an English town on market day, and was examining some paintings in one of the open-air stalls.  I noticed that the prices were all in “guineas,” which puzzled me; I had seen pence and sixpence and shillings and half crowns and pound notes, but not guineas.  So I asked the young man in charge what that meant.  He promptly and correctly informed me that a guinea was a pound and a shilling (the equivalent of 21 shillings).

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

Now the wise man, continuing his advice, “ups the ante,” as is said in card playing.  He increases the amount one should be willing to part with before one parts with one’s heart.  Now it is not just crowns and pounds and guineas, but very precious things — pearls and rubies.  This is a way of saying, “Give anything away before you give your heart away to someone.”  In short, do not fall in love.

The advice is “to keep your fancy free,” that is, do not fixate and put all your attention on one person, but keep your mental options open:  continue meeting various people, experience them as individuals, get to know their good and bad points, enjoy being with them and do not be in a hurry to commit yourself.

But our young man is only 21 years old, inexperienced and not yet wise in the ways of the world.  Young people hear the advice to be cautious and slow and patient and careful in avoiding premature relationships with those of the sex to whom one is attracted, but do they take it to heart?  Do they take it seriously enough?

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again, 
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty, 
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Our wise counselor tells the young man that whenever one gives one’s heart to another, that is, whenever one falls in love, there will be consequences.  Giving one’s heart was never done “in vain,” which here means “without results.”  And what are those results, those consequences?

Again, Housman speaks in monetary terms, but this time a different kind of coin — negative emotions.  Falling in love is paid for with “sighs a plenty,” that is, with many sad sighs of remorse.  And one’s heart is “sold for endless rue,” that is, traded for endless regrets.

In the last two lines, we find that our young man did not heed the warning:

And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

What a difference a year can make.  In just that short time, our young man has found by experience that the pain and regret he had been warned would follow “falling in love” were not just vain imaginings.  He has since allowed it to happen; he has fallen in love, and has experienced its pains.  And now he can tell us from his own bitter experience,

And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

First-hand experience is often the best, but also the most bitter teacher.

David

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