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On Love

What is love? Ask him who lives, what is life? ask him who adores,
what is God?

I know not the internal constitution of other men, nor even thine,
whom I now address. I see that in some external attributes they
resemble me, but when, misled by that appearance, I have thought
to appeal to something in common, and unburthen my inmost soul to
them, I have found my language misunderstood, like one in a distant
and savage land. The more opportunities they have afforded me for
experience, the wider has appeared the interval between us, and
to a greater distance have the points of sympathy been withdrawn.
With a spirit ill fitted to sustain such proof, trembling and feeble
through its tenderness, I have everywhere sought sympathy and have
found only repulse and disappointment.

Thou demandest what is love? It is that powerful attraction towards
all that we conceive, or fear, or hope beyond ourselves, when we
find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void,
and seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with what we
experience within ourselves. If we reason, we would be understood;
if we imagine, we would that the airy children of our brain were
born anew within another's; if we feel, we would that another's
nerves should vibrate to our own, that the beams of their eyes
should kindle at once and mix and melt into our own, that lips of
motionless ice should not reply to lips quivering and burning with
the heart's best blood. This is Love. This is the bond and the
sanction which connects not only man with man, but with everything
which exists. We are born into the world, and there is something
within us which, from the instant that we live, more and more
thirsts after its likeness. It is probably in correspondence with
this law that the infant drains milk from the bosom of its mother;
this propensity develops itself with the development of our nature.
We dimly see within our intellectual nature a miniature as it were
of our entire self, yet deprived of all that we condemn or despise,
the ideal prototype of everything excellent or lovely that we are
capable of conceiving as belonging to the nature of man. Not only
the portrait of our external being, but an assemblage of the minutest
particles of which our nature is composed;[Footnote: These words
are ineffectual and metaphorical. Most words are so--No help!] a
mirror whose surface reflects only the forms of purity and brightness;
a soul within our soul that describes a circle around its proper
paradise, which pain, and sorrow, and evil dare not overleap. To
this we eagerly refer all sensations, thirsting that they should
resemble or correspond with it. The discovery of its antitype; the
meeting with an understanding capable of clearly estimating our own;
an imagination which should enter into and seize upon the subtle
and delicate peculiarities which we have delighted to cherish and
unfold in secret; with a frame whose nerves, like the chords of
two exquisite lyres, strung to the accompaniment of one delightful
voice, vibrate with the vibrations of our own; and of a combination
of all these in such proportion as the type within demands; this
is the invisible and unattainable point to which Love tends; and
to attain which, it urges forth the powers of man to arrest the
faintest shadow of that, without the possession of which there
is no rest nor respite to the heart over which it rules. Hence in
solitude, or in that deserted state when we are surrounded by human
beings, and yet they sympathize not with us, we love the flowers,
the grass, and the waters, and the sky. In the motion of the very
leaves of spring, in the blue air, there is then found a secret
correspondence with our heart. There is eloquence in the tongueless
wind, and a melody in the flowing brooks and the rustling of the
reeds beside them, which by their inconceivable relation to something
within the soul, awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless
rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes, like
the enthusiasm of patriotic success, or the voice of one beloved
singing to you alone. Sterne says that, if he were in a desert,
he would love some cypress. So soon as this want or power is dead,
man becomes the living sepulchre of himself, and what yet survives
is the mere husk of what once he was.

[written c.1815; pub. 1840]

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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