A Description of the Passion of Love Misplaced (from Nature’s Picture(s))

A lady on the ground a-mourning lay1
Complaining to the gods, and thus did say:

“You gods,” said she, “why do you me torment?
Why give you life, without the mind’s content?
Why do you passions in a mind create,                              5
Then leave it all to Destiny and Fate?
With knots and snarls they spin the thread of life,2
Then weave it cross and make a web of strife.
Come, Death—though Fates are cross, yet thou’rt a friend,
And in the grave dost peace and quiet send.”                   10

It chanced a gentleman that way came by,
And seeing there a weeping beauty lie:

“Alas, dear lady, why do you so weep,
Unless your tears you mean the gods shall keep?
Jove3 will present those tears to Juno4 fair,                       15
For pendants and for necklaces to wear,
And so present that breath to Juno fair,
That she may always move in perfumed air.
Forbear, forbear, make not the world so poor;
Send not such riches, for the gods have store.”                 20

“I’m one,”5 said she, “to whom Fortune’s a foe,
Crossing my love, working my overthrow:6
A man which to Narcissus7 might compare
For youth and beauty—and the graces fair
Do8 him adorn—on him my love is placed,                        25
But his neglect doth make my life to waste;
My soul doth mourn; my thoughts no rest can take;
He9 by his scorn doth me unhappy make.”
With that she cried, “O Death,” said she, “come quick,
And in my heart thy leaden arrow10 stick!”                       30

“Take comfort, lady, grieve and weep11 no more,
For Nature handsome men hath more in store.
Besides, dear lady, beauty will decay,
And with that beauty love will flee away.
If you take time, this heat of love will waste,12                 35
Because ’tis only on a beauty placed,
But if your love did from his virtue spring,13
You might have loved, though not so fond14 have been.
The love of virtue is for to admire
The soul, and not the body to desire:                                  40
That’s a gross15 love, which only dull beasts use,
But noble man to love the soul will choose.
Because the soul is like a deity,
Therein16 pure love will live eternally.”

“O sir, but Nature hath the soul so fixed                             45
Unto the body, and such passions mixed,
That nothing can divide or disunite,
Unless that Death will separate them quite,
For when the senses in delights agree,
They bind the soul, make17 it a slave to be.”                      50

He answered.
“If that the soul in man18 should give consent
In every thing the senses to content,
No peace but war amongst mankind would19 be,
And desolation20 would have victory.
No man could tell21 or challenge what’s his own;            55
He would be master that is strongest grown.22
Lady, love virtue, and let beauty die,
And in the grave of ruins let it lie.”

With that she rose, and with great joy, said she:
“Farewell, fond love and foolish vanity.”                           60

The men condemned the tale because, said they,
“None but a fool would preach so, wise men pray.”
“But ladies,24 hear me,” did another say:

To love but one is a great fault,
For Nature otherwise us25 taught:                                       65
She caused varieties for us to taste,
And other appetites in us she placed,
And caused dislike in us to rise,
To surfeit when we gormandize,
For of one dish we glut our palate,                                      70
Although it be but of a salad.
When Solomon26 the Wise did try
Of all things underneath the sky,
Although he found it vanity,
Yet by it Nature made us free.                                              75
For by the change, her works do live
By several forms that she doth give,
So that inconstancy is Nature’s play,
And we, her various works, must her obey.

A woman said that men were foolish lovers,                    80
And whining passions love oft27 discovers.
“They’re full of thoughts,” said she, “yet never pleased,
Always complaining, and yet never eased;
They28 sigh, they mourn, they groan, they make great moan,
They’ll sit cross-legged with folded arms alone.               85
Sometimes their dress is careless with despair;
With hopes raised up, ’tis29 costly, rich, and rare,
Setting their looks and faces in a frame,
Their garb’s affected by their mistress’s30 name.
Flattering their loves, forswearing; then each boasts31  90
What valiant deeds he’s32 done in foreign coasts:
Through what great dangers his adventures run,33
Such acts as Hercules34 had never done,
That everyone that hears doth fear his35 name,
And every tongue that speaks sounds forth his36 fame. 95
And thus their tongues extravagantly move,
Caused by vainglorious, foolish, amorous love,
Which only those of his own sex approve.”37

But when their rallery38 was past,
The tale upon a man was cast;
Then crying peace to all that talking were,
They were bid hold their tongues and lend an ear.

  1. This poem is taken from Margaret Cavendish’s Natures Pictures, drawn by fancies pencil to the life (London, 1656), reprinted with textual changes as Natures Picture (London, 1671). The first part of Nature’s Pictures (a section entitled “Her Excellencies Tales in Verse” in 1656 and “Several Feigned Stories in Verse” in 1671) is made up of several verse stories, told by different storytellers, similar in structure to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (see also “A Description of the Violence of Love” on this site. This poem offers a layered and complicated set of narratives and speeches: within the frame of the original tale, a woman complains of her unrequited desire, and is corrected by a passing man on the virtues of Platonic Love. Following the tale, in the larger frame narrative (marked out with italics), the men in the audience offer critiques of the male character’s speech and preach the virtue of bodily pleasures, only to have that discourse corrected by a woman storyteller in their group.

    We chose this poem to edit for reasons of both form and content. Formally, we liked the almost chiasmic structure of the entire poem, where both within and without the frame of the tale the different genders provide their different takes on the question of the passion of love. The title is interestingly ambiguous: is the “passion of love” “misplaced” because (as in the original narrative) a woman has fallen in love with someone who does not return her affections, or is the “misplacement” in the title a reference to the debate in the commentary that follows the poem, in which different voices provide their perspectives on whether love is a passion of the body, or of the mind or soul, whether love should be placed on or experienced in the physical world, or as an immaterial, transcending thing. Many debates around the nature and value of Platonic Love sprang up thanks to Queen Henrietta Maria’s interest in the topic; as Margaret Cavendish served as a lady-in-waiting in Henrietta Maria’s court, the debate about the value of physical v. immaterial understandings of love may be an oblique reference to those conversations. The discussion may also allude not just to poetic but to philosophical debates of the seventeenth century: when the woman in the original frame argues against the man that “Nature hath the soul so fixed / Unto the body, . . . / That nothing can divide or disunite [them],” she could be voicing Cavendish’s own materialist view that the soul cannot be divorced or split from the body because the imagination of the soul as a kind of immaterial substance stems from a philosophical error. (Compare the philosophy of her contemporary René Descartes, who believed the body to be material and the soul to be immaterial.)

    This poem was collaboratively edited by Liza Blake and Roxy Moldovanu. For our edition we collated the two editions against one another, and with one exception (at line 84) preferred the 1671 variants to those in 1656. We modernized the text, including updating spelling and punctuation, and noted textual variants in notes. Other notes include glosses, and many of those glosses rely on the online version of Mike Dixon-Kennedy’s “Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology” (https://legacy-abc-clio-com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/reader.aspx?isbn=9781576074886), as well as britannica.com, newworldencyclopedia.org, and the Oxford English Dictionary Online (oed.com). Where the early editions (1656 or 1671) use indents to note changes of speakers or stanzas, we have used line breaks.

  2. they spin the thread of life] In Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, three goddesses known as the Fates spun a thread of human life, which determined a person’s destiny.
  3. Jove] Jove, also known as Jupiter, was king of the Roman gods.
  4. Juno] Juno was the queen of the Roman gods, and was married to Jove.
  5. “I’m one,”] I am 1656
  6. working] and works 1656
  7. Narcissus] Narcissus is a Greek figure known for his beauty. A nymph named Echo fell in love with him. He did not return her love, and she wasted away to just a voice. He was then cursed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.
  8. Do] Doth 1656
  9. He] And 1656
  10. And in my heart thy leaden arrow] It is strange that the Lady imagines Death as an archer here: when personified in Western culture, Death typically carries a scythe. Arrows are more commonly attributed to Cupid, the Roman god of love, whose arrows cause lust or love in the person struck.
  11. lady, grieve and] Lady green nor 1656. “Green” may mean “[u]naltered by time or natural processes; fresh, new” or “immature, undeveloped” (OED)—in other words, the first edition’s description of the lady as “green” may have positive or negative connotations.
  12. waste] The OED defines “waste” as “[t]o lose strength, health, or vitality; to lose flesh or substance, pine, decay; to become gradually weak or enfeebled.”
  13. But if your love did from his virtue spring,]See the short introduction in the first note for a discussion of the discourse of Platonic Love this section represents.
  14. fond] Here, “fond” presumably means “[f]oolishly tender; over-affectionate, doting” (OED).
  15. gross] Here, “gross” presumably means “[e]xtremely coarse in behaviour or morals; brutally lacking in refinement or decency” (OED).
  16. Therein] There 1656
  17. They bind the soul, make] Binds fast the Soul, makes 1656
  18. soul in man] Soul 1656
  19. would] will 1656
  20. And desolation] Ruine and Desolation 1656. “Desolation” may mean “[t]he condition of a place which by hostile ravaging or by natural character is unfit for habitation; waste or ruined state; dreary barrenness” or “[d]eprivation of comfort or joy; dreary sorrow; grief” (OED).
  21. No man could tell] Few Men can call 1656
  22. He would be master that is strongest grown.] For he would Master be that was most strong 1656. With the line above, the 1656 edition argues that no man would have private property because those in power determine the operation of society. However, the 1671 version of this couplet, as implemented here, separates these two ideas; the couplet reads that no man has private property, and strength gives the right to rule. The suggestion of a dystopian version of society where might makes right may be an oblique reference to the “state of nature” as described in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, published in 1651.
  23. “None but a fool would preach so, wise men pray.”] This line is ambiguous, but the editors understand it to mean “no one would believe in this [the moral of the tale between the lady and the man], we hope everyone who is wise would agree with our dismissal.” Had we used a semicolon instead of the comma, the line would say that only fools would advocate for this tale, and (as additional information) that wise men would pray (perhaps suggesting a distinction between religious celibate life and the follies of love).
  24. But ladies,] Ladyes, but 1656
  25. us] In both the 1656 and 1671 editions, this line reads “For Nature otherwise is taught.” The editors have emended “is” to “us” because Nature is the teacher in this stanza, not the student.
  26. Solomon] Salomon 1656. Solomon was a King of Israel, primarily written about in the Bible. He is known for his great wisdom and piety. He also had a large harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. The 1656 edition’s spelling “Salomon” may be a pun on the word “salmon” within the stanza’s larger discussion of food.
  27. love oft] often times 1656. The editors understand this couplet as Cavendish returning to the frame of the narrative, but she has not marked it with italics or an indentation as she has above.
  28. They] They’l 1671. Although the editors have preferred the 1671 edition for all other substantive textual variants, we have preferred the 1656 edition of this line, and have therefore kept “They” instead of the 1671 “They’l”.
  29. ’tis] as 1656
  30. mistress’s] Although the editors have modernized this as “mistress’s” it could also have been modernized as “mistresses’”; we chose the singular possessive as the actions described seem like a typical description of a man pining for one particular woman in early modern poetry.
  31. forswearing; then each boasts] forswear, or else ^they^ boasts 1656. In at least six copies of the 1656 text, this line has the word “they” inserted by hand (in two copies, held at the Hendrick Conscience Heritage Library, Antwerp, Belgium [shelfmark C 1039:1 ex:1] and the Leiden University Library, Leiden, Netherlands [shelfmark 1407 C 20:1], the insertion is in Cavendish’s own hand). After this the text uses the third-person plural pronouns until the end of the stanza. The 1671 edition offers a different correction; it instead uses the pronoun “he”. The use of “he” instead of “they” could be caused by a desire to keep the more perfect rhyme (the insertion of “they” would necessitate a change of “boasts” to “boast”, which would make “boast” and “coasts” an imperfect rhyme). However, given that the change is carried to later pronouns in the stanza as well, it could also be a substantive edit, wherein, in the 1671 edition, this one man symbolizes (only) the sort of man that the narrator (and, by extension, potentially Cavendish) disapproves of, suggesting that perhaps not all men (who might be encompassed by the 1656’s “they”) fit into this category.
  32. he’s] they’ve 1656
  33. Through what great dangers his adventures run,] What hard adventures, and through dangers run, 1656
  34. Hercules] Heracles, better known as Hercules, the Roman version of his name, is a famous Greek hero in classical mythology. He is a demigod and son of Zeus. He is famous for performing the 12 Great Labours of Heracles. These labours included slaying beasts and monsters, and capturing rare items and creatures.
  35. his] their 1656
  36. his] their 1656
  37. those of his own sex approve.”] the masculine Sex do prove 1656. “Approve” may mean “[t]o make good (a statement or position); to show to be true, prove, demonstrate” or “[t]o pronounce to be good, commend” (OED). In other words, men may prove true, or may approve of one another’s truth.
  38. rallery] Here “rallery” means raillery or banter.
  39. They were bid hold their tongues and lend an ear.] To hold their tongues, and each to lend an ear / To lissen to a Tale, their words forbear. 1656 [The 1656 version of this poem has an additional line, deleted in the 1671 edition.]