Entry 114: You Ask How Much I Love You– Yet another incipit; the entry title comprises the first seven words of the song. A tricky question, as King Lear was to find out when his two eldest daughters responded in hyperbolistic terms to his demand to know the quality and quantity of their love for him:
Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter,/Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,/Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,/No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor,/As much as child e’er loved or father found—/A love that makes breath poor and speech unable./Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
This is Goneril, his eldest. Regan, the second-born sister, not the be outdone, claims, I find she names my very deed of love—/Only she comes too short, that I profess/Myself an enemy to all other joys,/Which the most precious square of sense possesses./And find I am alone felicitate/In your dear highness’ love.
This tsunami of flattery prompts the ageing monarch to gift to each of these fulsome daughters a bounteous portion of the kingdom, though still reserving the quality cut for his favourite and youngest daughter, Cordelia. As you may guess, if you do not already know, it all ends in tears. Nothing, she responds, allowing her personal distaste for her sisters’ hypocrisy, to cruel her chances for her father’s affection and largesse.
Just as well, I hear the aesthetes among you murmur, otherwise we would have been deprived of one of the greatest tragedies of world literature. But pre-Christian Britain was not the only locus for love gone awry: the intemperate geriatric autocrat who rejects his loving daughter and banishes his faithful counsellor, Kent, for attempting to defend her, seems quite a placid, level-headed sort of fellow when compared to ruler of the Sassanid Empire who, upon learning of the infidelity of his wife, had her executed and then, in a stratagem to prevent further infidelity, married and murdered a succession of 1000 virgins after the consummation on the wedding night.
Now, even a great empire will run short of virgins in such circumstances, and the vizier, whose job it is to provide the daily delivery of young and innocent flesh for Shahryar, reluctantly gives into his daughter’s plea to offer herself up as ransom. Scheherazade, for such is the minx’s moniker, has a cunning plan: she regales the ruler with a story and a half each night, using the impending dawn as an excuse for failing to finish the second story.
Shahryar, a true fan of narrative, stalls the execution until he can hear the conclusion of the story from the night before- and so it goes for a thousand and one nights and days until he grows besotted with the wily storyteller and she can relinquish her increasingly wearisome gambit for survival. So, to all you creative types who moan about impending deadlines for the dross you are obliged to provide for a jaded public palate, reflect on the story of Scheherazade and- why not?- filch one of her life-saving tales as a template for your tedious and thankless task.
Rimsky-Korsakov shows the way in his enduringly popular symphonic suite of 1888 entitled Scheherazade. Chosen by many competitive skaters, including 2010 Olympic Gold medallist Evan Lysacek and 2014 Gold medallists, Charlie White and Meryl Davis for their free skating routines, this music is an ever-enchanting accompaniment. Hyperbole is the default setting for expositions about love in any genre: bodice-rippers, in particular, would be lost without it.
Auden’s justly famous Funeral Blues, uses it to exquisite comic effect, The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,/Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,/Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;/For nothing now can ever come to any good. Yes, the intensity that rages in the blood, driven by hormones coursing through the bewildered brain, lends itself to excess in everything- including language. And Shakespeare knows full well how to play this card time and again in his drama and poetry- but he can also, consummate show-off that he is, turn it on its head and create a splendid example of litotes, as in sonnet 130:
My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun./ Coral is far more red, than her lips red:/If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;/If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head./I have seen roses damasked, red and white,/But no such roses see I in her cheeks;/And in some perfumes is there more delight/Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks./I love to hear her speak, yet well I know/That music hath a far more pleasing sound:/I grant I never saw a goddess go,/ My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:/ And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare.