Why “Love Without Hope” is a Poem About Hope

Hope has been on my mind, partially due to the political milieu. My post-election anxiety following Trump’s victory has since been compounded by his controversial picks for his cabinet, his tasteless Tweets, and the impending inauguration (what on earth will it look like?).  The country’s collective despair, I think, is a consequence of realizing that nothing much can be done at this point and acknowledging the uncertainty of Trump’s presidency, which for many, including myself, will test what it means to be an American.

During times like these, hope is often invoked as a means of self-preservation and as a way of moving forward. In the last speech that she delivered as the FLOTUS, Michelle Obama identified hope as the reason for motivating her and her husband through hard times in the White House:

Something that has carried us through every moment in this White House and every moment of our lives, and that is the power of hope–the belief that something better  is always possible if you’re willing to work for it and fight for it. It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voices of doubt and division, of anger and fear, that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country. Our hope that if we work hard enough and believe in ourselves that we can be whatever we dream, regardless of the limitations that others may place on us. The hope that when people see us for what we truly are, maybe, just maybe, they too will be inspired to rise to their best possible selves.

It wasn’t until the final sentence that her speech hit home. These days, lofty rhetoric provokes the skeptic in me. But I think for Obama, to hope is to participate in an act of mutual self-recognition, and can potentially have a real consequence: Of inspiring people “to rise to their best possible selves.” I love that she chose the word “rise,” as though to suggest that all this hoping and inspiring will take work from not just one individual, but many people.

What does it take, then, to keep hope alive? Religion, I know, is one source of hope. My friend in college once suggested that I try to believe in God. As a Buddhist, I fundamentally don’t. What I do believe in is art. For me, a poem is a secular form of prayer, and lately I’ve found myself returning to poems that I discovered during childhood and school, finding peace in their familiarity.

We all know Emily Dickinson’s poem, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” which likens hope to an intrepid little bird that strives despite the hardships it must endure. Recently I’ve been revisiting “Love Without Hope” by Robert Graves:

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

My professor introduced this poem in a class that I took as a college sophomore, and I remember her comment on the wonderful, and rather grand, image evoked: That of the bird-catcher’s larks breaking into song. I also remember the accompanying gesture the professor made with her hand–a slight sweeping motion that drew my mind’s eye to the hat, then the twittering larks, the woman, and finally the open sky.

Brad Leithauser’s analysis of this poem, which he calls a valentine, in The New Yorker rightly admires the poem’s technical adroitness. The quatrain consists of only one sentence, a sort of truncated heroic simile, and it progresses as quickly as the moment it captures. So much of the poem’s genius and élan arises from the juxtaposition of its compactness with the bird-catcher’s largesse which is, in fact, folly. As Leithauser puts it:

Our young bird-catcher forfeits his livelihood—those larks intended for someone else’s dinner—for a fleeting tributary display. Normally, the sweeping off of a tall hat would suggest elegance, but not here. (We know what the top of his head must look like.) Still, though we meet him in a single quatrain, we’re confident he’ll never regret his sacrifice. Instinctively, mutely, he does what love poets reliably do: he brings uplifted voices, the gift of music, to his beloved.

The poem doesn’t argue for or state the existence of hope so much as embody it. From the beginning, we know that the bird-catcher and the Squire’s daughter will never be. And this knowledge, I think, liberates the poem from any expectation for narrative or resolution. Nothing, in fact, happens. The poem doesn’t make a point.

What remains, then, is the poem’s beauty itself, which is at once overwhelming and yet also fleeting. It has lived with me for years, not just because I wish that I had written it. The poem has, as it does now, brought some meaningful joy into my life. It has, at some moments, saved me from my worst self, the inner critic that can be prone to bitterness and despair. And that, in turn, has given me enough reason to hope.

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