In ‘Symptoms of Love‘, Robert Graves repeatedly compares love to an affliction from which he cannot escape. The poem, on the one hand, challenges traditional expectations around love while also fleshing out and expanding upon the concept of a person that is ‘lovesick.’ Ultimately, Graves uses the poem to suggest that the pain detailed within it may be worthwhile as it implies the love must be true.
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‘Symptoms of Love‘ expresses heartbreak and misery by likening love to a disease or chronic condition from which there is no reprieve.
Written after Graves’ separation from his wife, at which point he was infatuated with the poet Laura Riding, the poem clearly expresses the anguish of its narrator through extended metaphors and dramatic imagery. Whilst initially resembling a lament, the poem becomes more consolatory in tone as the stanzas progress, eventually concluding that the pain of love is evidence of its strength. The poem conflates being in love with suffering throughout, thereby highlighting how the most precious things in life can also hurt us most.
You can read the full poem here.
Robert Graves was born in Surrey in 1895 and his life spanned most of the twentieth century. His father was a respected Irish poet and Robert inherited his father’s interest in mythology, going on to author many iconic versions of ancient Greek myths and legends. His interest in mythology, particularly the many tragic instances of love, rage, and pain in antiquity, clearly informed his writing a great deal.
Graves had a tumultuous romantic life which included two marriages and lead to eight children. ‘Symptoms of Love‘ was written against the backdrop of his rejection of his wife in favor of the poet Laura Riding, having failed to establish a triadic relationship between the three of them. Graves was bisexual and relationships between members of the same gender were not decriminalized in Britain until 1967.
Love is universal migraine,
A bright stain on the vision
Blotting out reason.
The poem begins with a metaphor that sets the tone for the rest of the text by conflating love with a painful experience. The metaphor is especially poignant because both love and migraines are invisible to everybody but the person experiencing it. There is no external wound with which to evidence their feelings; this clearly expresses the ways in which being in love can be a lonely experience. Furthermore, whilst Graves could have selected a headache, the choice of a migraine emphasizes the pain as they are more intense. Finally, it could also remind the reader that this pain is not fleeting as migraines are more likely to be something a person experiences periodically than headaches which are usually more circumstantial.
The second line describes love using the oxymoron “bright stain” in order to showcase the narrator’s inner conflict. The adjective “bright” implies he still remembers the positives of being in love but this is immediately contrasted by his use of the word “stain” which indicates that he regards it as something dirty that he cannot get rid of. Finally, the stanza’s last line offers an abdicative effect love has had on him by suggesting it prevents him from making rational choices.
Symptoms of true love
The second stanza elaborates upon the first by continuing the metaphor of love as a sickness by outlining the “symptoms.” By using this word, Graves emphasizes the fact that love is something that can be experienced against a person’s will, just like an illness. The symptoms themselves subvert the readers’ expectations of love due to their negative connotations. Rather than inspiring him, Graves finds love to be cumbersome and difficult. The adjective “laggard” suggests that the effects of love are so severe that they negatively impact the natural world around the narrator by slowing the passage of time. This could also remind the reader that, when in this state, it often feels like it will last forever and there is little hope of change.
Are omens and nightmares –
Waiting for a sign:
This stanza focuses on what the narrator regards as his lack of agency as a result of being in love, highlighted by the premonitory connotations of “omens” and “nightmares.” These references also establish a connection to Graves’ classical background, as they evoke the stories of myth for which he is known due to the prominence of prophecies in those stories. This serves to elevate his suffering to that of epic heroes and demigods.
The following two lines both further imply the narrator is passive in the face of his own suffering. The verbs “listening” and “waiting” both show that he is unwilling or unable to rid himself of his feelings and feels condemned to endure in the meantime. Finally, the ambiguous nature of the “knock” and “sign” implies that he will wait in perpetuity, as he seems unsure precisely what will trigger the end of his suffering.
For a touch of her fingers
For a searching look.
In this stanza, the poet lingers on the object of his affection for the first time which is curious in itself. It is possible that he was unwilling to refer to her in an attempt to distract himself from his feelings, or it could simply be that the poem is more concerned with the experience of being in love more generally and therefore wished to avoid specifics. This interpretation is supported by the fact she remains unnamed, which links back to the poem’s opening line, where Graves was careful to emphasize that this is a “universal” feeling.
Like the previous stanza’s ambiguous and absent signs, this stanza appears to suggest that he will continue suffering. This is achieved by juxtaposing the “searching look” he craves with the “darkened room” which may well prevent him from seeing the look at all. Thus, Graves establishes love as a paradox in which one is forced to wait for a sign which may never arrive or may not be noticed even if it does. This paradox serves to elucidate the agony that this poem views as a necessary component of being in love.
Take courage, lover!
At any hand but hers?
The final stanza changes tone significantly and appear to address the reader, presuming that they too are suffering in their affections. The poem ends with a challenging rhetorical question, which appears to reject the passivity of the third stanza by reminding the lover that enduring such pain is a choice and, were they not really in love, they would end their suffering. The poem, therefore, concludes that the negative feelings it outlines are necessary components of being in love and should be embraced rather than avoided.
Graves could simply have sought to show that real love creates high stakes and those stakes lead to thoughts we generally regard as negative. The poem seems to indicate that extremely positive feelings, like that of being in love, must be tempered by negative ones.
Contextually, Graves wrote the poem at a time of personal romantic turmoil after leaving his wife. More broadly, Graves lived during a time when his sexuality was not universally accepted in society which likely meant his feelings towards love were more conflicted than they might otherwise have been.
Robert Graves served as an officer in the First World War, having enlisted shortly after it was declared. During his time in France, he met and befriended several fellow soldiers who went on to become famous poets, most notably Siegfried Sassoon. After a very severe injury at the Somme, which doctors feared he would not survive, Graves spent the remainder of the war recovering, initially in France and later in England.
Graves is most commonly known for his 1929 memoir ‘Goodbye to All That‘ which described his experience during the war. He is also known for his novel, ‘I, Claudius‘ which is a fictionalized autobiography of Emperor Claudius and has been adapted for film, radio, television, and as an opera.
Laggard is an adjective, normally applied to people that are slow and fall behind what is expected of them. The application of this word to a natural phenomena, like the rising of the sun, elevates the narrator’s feelings to that of godlike beings, as though his suffering is capable of altering the path of celestial bodies.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Symptoms of Love‘ might want to explore other Robert Graves poems. For example:
- ‘The God Called Poetry‘ – A meta-poetical offering in which Graves explores the inspiration and the moment of artistic creation.
- ‘The Face in the Mirror‘ – An introspective poem in which Graves ponders some of the key moments in his own life over a series of short, thoughtful stanzas.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Love is Not A Word‘ by Riyas Qurana – A mediation on the nature of love, written in free verse.
- ‘Love Cycle‘ by Chinua Achebe – A poem that also shows the negative aspects of being in love and similarly draws upon celestial imagery.