Love rules. Love laughs. Love marches. Love is the wolf that guards the gate. Love is the food of music, art, poetry. It fills us and fuels us and fires us to create. Love is terror. Love is sweat. Love is bashed pillow, crumpled sheet, unenviable fate. Love is the honour that kills and saves and nothing will ever let that high ambiguity abate. Love is the crushed ice that tingles and shivers and clinks fidgin-fain for the sugar-drenched absinth to fall on it and alter its state. With love you send a probe So far from the globe No one can name the shoals the voids the belts the zones the drags the flares it signals all to leave all and to navigate.
Born Glasgow, Edwin Morgan lived there all his life, except for service with the RAMC, and his poetry is grounded in the city. Yet the title of his 1973 collection, From Glasgow to Saturn, suggests the enormous range of Morgan's subject matter. He was Glasgow's first Poet Laureate 1999-2002, and the first to hold the post of 'Scots Makar', created by the Scottish Executive in 2004 to recognise the achievement of Scottish poets throughout the centuries.Read more about this poet
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2004. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2004 was Hamish Whyte.
I have to declare an interest here, since, as Mariscat Press, I published the sequence from which the poem comes, Love and a Life. The poem perfectly summarises the aspects of love, its contradictions, its terror and ecstasy. No 'shadows and disguises', here Morgan opens his life to us candidly and unflinchingly. The poem is written in his recent invention, the 'Carthurian stanza' (after the ancient name for Glasgow): long lines, single rhyme (except for a couplet before the last line) – it seems to be a very freeing form for him.
'Love' is from a sequence of fifty poems I wrote between September and November 2002. These were largely autobiographical, recreating a diversity of love experiences over many years. I aimed at honesty, and often included names of the persons involved, together with indications of time and place. But I wanted also to open out the sequence into a consideration of love in general, sometimes doing this by writing about real or fictional historical characters (St Teresa, Shakespeare's Titania, Pushkin's Tatiana), and sometimes giving life to the abstractions of love, lust, and desire. The present poem is in the last category, and offers a series of images, some obvious (bashed pillow, crumpled sheet), some paradoxical (the wolf that guards the gate), all suggestive of the enormous actual power and unmappable potential of love. There are reminders of danger as well as delight. Lovers can kill, and be killed. Honour, seemingly a virtue, may have terrible consequences. But for all that, the poem emphasises the creative possibilities of one of the strongest of our emotions. Shakespeare may have suggested that music is the food of love; the poem would claim that love is the food of music, and indeed of all the arts. Without love we are dumb, senseless, unquickened. And I use the image of absinth (a drink I am fond of) swirling round the ice-cubes in a glass to evoke the desired quickening, which we are fidgin-fain (physically eager) to produce. My final imagery in the poem, taken from space flight and the sending of probes to distant parts of the universe, reminds us of love's most mysterious value, its exploration of the unknown, its commitment to something beyond convention and control, its open acknowledgement or declaration ('I love you') from which there is no going back. No going back, and despite all the risks involved – rebuff, jealousy, separation, violence, bereavement – the signals sent back by the probe are positive and encouraging.
The stanza form I used for all the poems in the sequence combines a strict rhyme scheme with a free rhythm, a somewhat unusual approach which I hoped would have the effect of giving the emotions their head, held by a loose rein, but periodically tugging them back with a smart whip of rhyme, to remind them, if they wanted reminding, that they are being deployed in terms of art, in a structure devised to give pleasure to the ear, whether inward or outward. We want life, and we want art. The 'life' part of the sequence followed the events during its composition: the season of autumn turning to winter, visits to hospital for scans, the putting up and taking down of scaffolding while the house was having its brickwork cleaned and repointed. The 'art' part of the sequence refused the reader any easy escape from the actual language it evolved.