Love in the aftermath of marriage: three unhappily married poets tell the truth
Last week, Catch started a curated space for poetry. If you love poetry, we hope you'll find new favourites here. If you think it isn't for you, we hope you'll find something here to change your mind.
'Poetry, some foolish critic said,
Is the natural language of lovers -
Looking at her even destroyed my prose.'
(The Language of Lovers, Nissim Ezekiel)
In hindsight, one can register a genuine complaint against pursuits of the heart - that you don't encounter your biggest test till the end. Because that's when the real questions come to you. What if the passion cools down as soon as all the worldly resistance yields to it? Or how differently, after the curiosity and the surrender, do you find him or her?
Three celebrated writers, influenced by each other, lived through disastrous first marriages. And wanted to prick the bubble of the dream that others call a blissful married life.
Nissim Ezekiel was the most ardent admirer of women and their sexuality. But something in him always recoiled - often with funny effect - from the banality that actualised affairs offered.
He says to the woman beneath whose dress he once found her to be
Rewarding to my explorations, certain,
Soft and flowing,
And tender to the touch of love.
'But you are old
With the shop-soiled wisdom
Of drawing-rooms and dowagers.
'You are city-cramped my love.
Only flesh remains what it was meant to be.'
He repeatedly murmurs regret for not having realised in time how far in he's been drawn. Take the case of 'Jewish Wedding in Bombay'.
'During our first serious marriage quarrel she said Why did
you take my virginity from me? I would gladly have
returned it, but not one of the books I had read instructed
Ezekiel was of course not alone in suspecting affairs of turning sour and in issuing warnings against failed alliances.
An admirer of Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman, who also wrote with relish about young girls - 'The tennis-playing, biking girl/ The wholly-to-my-liking girl,' - had a married man pushed over the edge and into a high speed collision on a highway in 'Meditation on the A30'.
'She's losing her looks very fast,
She loses her temper all day;
At breakfast she said that she wished I was dead -
Thank heavens we don't have to kiss.
As he clenches his pipe, his moment is ripe
And the corner's accepting its kill.'
Then there's Thomas Hardy, whom Ezekiel was inspired by and resembled as a writer; in being a prolific writer of prose but considering it incidental to his real love - poetry.
Hardy was particularly cruel to his first wife, who died in two miserable attic rooms. The two had little to say to each other, just a few months after their marriage. The material for 'At an Inn', one imagines, did not need much outside inspiration.
'And we were left alone
As Love's own pair;
Yet never the love-light shone
Between us there!
But that which chilled the breath
And palsied unto death
The pane-fly's tune.'
But the absolute crown for expressing the horror, the panic and anxiety of a failed marriage, must go to Nissim Ezekiel.
In 'Midmonsoon Madness' he shivers as a chill runs up his spine when he realises that the life he's lived was just a blur and his dreams have remained just that, while his wife and children lie beside him in bed.
He expresses the homicidal madness that continued proximity can invoke - an urge to smash everything and start again.
But let's not draw lessons for life through these poems. After all, all three of them celebrated delinquent love also.
I know I will go -
From here to anywhere -
Which means nowhere.
It will always rain like this
incessantly upon the past,
and I shall see nothing clearly
except the future stuff of dreams
repeating what has always been.
The things I feared
have come to pass
(was it perhaps because I feared them?)
and when it rains
incessantly upon the night,
I listen to my own madness
saying: smash it up and start again.
I sense the breathing
of my wife and children,
adding to the chill.
(From the Oxford edition of Nissim Ezekiel, Collected Poems, Second Edition)