Before now, you had only known two types of heartbreak: one that comes with a sigh of relief—though often with residual guilt—and another born out of betrayal. They all hurt, yes, but at least you could understand why they happened and have some authority in the matter—a license to do what you did or feel the way you felt. But what if a breakup gives you no clear answers? What if you’re left feeling only empty, alone, and confused? What if being conscious means a mind reeling with pain and suffering? What if the mere act of thinking hurts, and you see no end in sight?
In John Keats’s “Ode To A Nightingale,” the speaker, faced with heartbreak, impulsively turns to alcohol. “A draught of vintage” is the only antidote to an aching heart; the closest one may ever get to the nightingale’s naïve and blissful state. And “That I might drink and leave the world unseen”—you find this comforting, preferable to heartbreak. Because to be conscious is to be riddled with life’s darkest truths; to know of “the weariness, the fever, and the fret.” Whereas the nightingale—it has no worries. It’s a creature “among the leaves” that “hast never known.” A creature that “wast not born for death.”
Too much thinking may be the reason you’re here in the first place—alone and broken. Robert Browning addressed this in “The Last Ride Together,” one of the most spectacular love poems to come out of the Victorian era. In it, Browning laments losing his only love and, in writing about his loss, he attempts to grapple with it too. He begs her to leave her consciousness aside, and to let the visceral take over. Because really, “what hand and brain went ever paired?”
Everything seems slowed down. Your mind is murky, constantly awake and reeling, but with a cloudy and forlorn narrative. Everywhere you go you carry the weight of a million sad stories on your back. Just to get through the day is like trudging through a swamp, with the burden of loneliness tied to each ankle. It’s a feeling of inadequacy that you’ve never known, but a feeling that the speaker in “The Last Ride Together” knows all too well. Browning tells his mistress, “The petty done, the undone vast,” suggesting the disparity between the infinite will—what one desires—and what one actually gets. But if this is what it means to be human, then you’re not interested.
“I love you, but I can’t be with you.” It’s something you hear in passing, but never think will be directed at you. It’s a pill you can’t swallow: this isn’t a betrayal that you can triumphantly rise above, nor is it a way out.
“I love you, but I can’t be with you”—does that make any sense? To live like Browning’s mistress in “The Last Ride Together”: in the past and future, but not in the present? You wonder what the point of it all is? Why he can’t love you and be with you? For, as Browning wrote, “Had I said that, had I done this, / So might I gain, so might I miss.”
For years, people have speculated over the meaning of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” the last two lines in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” But what’s there to toil over, when the meaning is so clear? Love can be this simple, if you let it.