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.
About this poem
This poem was included in the Best of the Best Scottish Poems, published in 2019. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of our annual online anthology Best Scottish Poems, the Library invited broadcaster, journalist and author James Naughtie to edit a ‘Best of the Best’ drawn from each of the annual editions of Best Scottish Poems.
Edwin Morgan’s confidence and command of form allows him such muscularity as a poet. Nothing seems forced or awkward, and every word holds its own. In this verse he plunges into his own feelings – it was part of an autobiographical sequence – with unabashed boldness, and lifts the lines with characteristic sudden changes of tone – ‘the wolf at the gate’. Beautiful poetry from Scotland’s first Makar.
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.