We celebrate a somewhat healthier love in this Valentine’s Day episode, with Mary Shelley’s “Oh, come to me in dreams, my love!” and provide some context for the Greek myth it draws on. Transcript follows the embedded player below.
For more on the mythology of Psyche and Eros, the following links are a good starting point:
Image or Eros and Psyche is in the public domain, sourced from Wikimedia.org
The origins of Valintinus, known as Saint Valentine, are largely apocryphal. It was a popular name in 3rd Century Rome, and what is likely is that several clergymen named Valintinus were put to death for their faith.
The Valentine whose Christian feast day is celebrated on February 14 might have been one individual or the superimposition of two or more – but the object of veneration today is generally neither the man nor the myths that built up around his later patronage, but Love.
More accurately, the object of veneration is often the commercial trappings of Valentine’s Day, which has become an increasingly fiscal event in capitalist societies.
My wife and I decided early in our relationship that reserving an arbitrary day to be overtly or extravagantly romantic could cheapen the other 364 – so instead we take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate the everyday beauty of our relationship, to reaffirm the quality time we already spend together, and to enjoy a chance to reflect on how we’ve nurtured our relationship in the last year.
So while we won’t be elbowing our way into florists or brushing off the evening wear, we are not going to diminish a day that celebrates love, however murky its origins.
In that spirit I’ve chosen a lesser known poem for this episode, by Mary Shelley. Better known as the author of Frankenstein, and identifying as a writer of prose, even her non-fiction work contained a poetic sensibility at times, and the following poem is a beautiful piece.
It offers a timely contrast to our discussion of Porphyria’s Lover, and the toxic model of love it highlights.
“Oh, come to me in dreams, my love!” is a poem in four stanzas that invokes one of the most famous Greek myths about love: the story of Psyche and Eros.
Psyche is a familiar term to modern sensibilities referring to the structure of the mind, but it means “soul” in Greek. Eros is the personification of physical desire, from whom we obtain the modern English “erotic”. In Greek myth, he is also the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, which is where the conflict of this story arises.
The story begins, as Greek myths often do, with the intersection of the mortal and divine.
The myth is worthy of its own consideration, but we’ll hit the high points that are relevant to the poem and I’ll leave links to a couple of versions in the show notes.
Aphrodite becomes aware that people are comparing Psyche’s human beauty favourably to hers, so she sends her son, Eros, to curse Psyche.
Eros, inevitably, falls in love with Psyche, and refuses to curse her. In different versions of the myth, Aphrodite then curses Psyche herself, or Psyche’s beauty is such that it frightens would-be mortal suitors away.
Either way, the result is the same: Psyche’s royal parents consult an oracle to find out why their third daughter has not found a lover, and are told that an “inhuman winged serpent” is her destined husband. The description is ambiguous, and of course a less obvious reading would fit Eros, who has conspired to spirit her away.
Psyche, vitally, chooses to meet this apparently grim fate, and is instead borne away by Zephyrus, the west wind, to a beautiful palace surrounded by an enchanted wood. Eros is with her every night, but warns her that if she looks upon his face he will leave her.
She asks whether her sisters can visit her, and Eros reluctantly agrees. Zephyrus brings them to the palace and they are struck with jealousy, inferring that her husband must be a god. When she admits that she hasn’t seen his face, her sisters warn her that he must be a beast who will devour her child when she gives birth.
In sudden uncertainty and fear, Psyche takes a knife and a lamp that evening, and looks upon Eros for the first time while he sleeps. But in her very moment of relief, a drop of oil from the lamp lands on his skin, and he wakes, betrayed, and flees.
Psyche immediately searches for him, but none of the gods are prepared to assist her and risk Aphrodite’s wrath. Eventually, she appeals to Aphrodite herself, who sets her a series of impossible trials, similar to the trials of Heracles.
In classical heroic fashion, Psyche succeeds in each task, generally by being more judicious about who to trust, until her curiosity again bites her and she ends up in an enchanted sleep.
Eros, meanwhile, is tortured in equal measure by betrayal and the loss of Psyche, but he eventually seeks her out. Finding her under the spell, he wakes her and together they fulfill her final task, after which, in short, Zeus grants her entry to the pantheon of Gods.
Which brings us back to Mary Shelley’s Stanzas. The following poem invokes the pivotal moment of the myth, when Psyche looks upon Eros for the first time and in doing so betrays him.
It’s important to remember that Psyche and Eros have a happily-ever-after, despite this moment, and the speaker invokes that subject knowledge here to posit an even better outcome for themselves by subverting the myth.