That I should love a bright particular star

Shakespeare has a special line in obsessive, consumptive love; love that feels more like death than life. Even where the love itself is unhealthy, unworthy, or foreshortened by circumstance, his descriptions of that morbid state are magnificent. This is Helena, from All's well that ends well, confessing her love for Bertram. No matter that Bertram is a total jerk who spurns her repeatedly until he is tricked into accepting her. The poetry is beautiful, and in immortalising the feeling, it effaces Bertram's peculiar flaws; it survives his unworthiness.

I am undone: there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. ’Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. ’Twas pretty, though plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart’s table; heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour:
But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his reliques.


Man was made for joy and woe

Thinking more about goodness, I probably need to qualify my earlier thoughts. A careful distinction needs to be drawn between true comedy, which involves restoration of good and a happy ending after sorrow, and narratives which are merely saccharine, in which no restoration is needed. Unmitigated goodness in fiction feels false.  Unshaded sunshine has no contours.  Even in children's books, there is something eery about stories with no shadow, no threat to happiness, nothing to be overcome; Pollyanna, that avatar of the bright side, exercised her trademark optimism in the face of unusual misfortune and distress.  I'm thus brought back to Hopkins' glory in dappled things, and (to change the metaphor) to William Blake's famous song of “Innocence”:

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

A character in All's well that ends well has the line: “The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” According to Blake, not only truth but safe passage rests in this knowledge. Not only a better reflection of the way life is, but the secret of a way to live. In this sense, comedy is more instructive than tragedy, less spectacle than physic. The silver-lined cloud has become a tawdry image of wishful thinking, but the silken twine that runs under every grief is a lifeline, a saving grace. The title of Shakespeare's comedy might seem a toothless truism in the face of real sorrow, but it is in fact a great truth. All's well that ends well. The happy ending works backwards, not to erase suffering, but (to change the metaphor back) to illuminate it. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, all's well.