The Courtier (4)

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The nature of ideal love

Bembo notwithstanding sought to make an end of reasoning, but the Duchess desired him to say on, and he began thus afresh: Too unlucky were the nature of man, if our soul (in the which this so fervent coveting may lightly arise) should be driven to nourish it with that only which is common to her with beasts, and could not turn it to the other noble part, which is proper to her [the soul]. Therefore since it is so your pleasure, I will not refuse to reason upon this noble matter. And because I know myself unworthy to talk of the most holy mysteries of love, I beseech him [Love] to lead my thought and my tongue so, that I may show this excellent Courtier how to love contrary to the wonted manner of the common ignorant sort. And even as from my childhood I have dedicated all my whole life unto him, so also now that my words may be answerable to the same intent, and to the praise of him. . .

Love is not of the body or the senses

And first consider that the body, where that beauty shineth, is not the fountain from whence beauty springeth, but rather because beauty is bodiless, and (as we have said) an heavenly shining beam, she loseth much of her honour when she is coupled with that vile subject and full of corruption, because the less she is partner thereof [with the body], the more perfect she is; and clean sundered [separated] from it, is most perfect.

And as a man heareth not with his mouth, nor smelleth with his ears, no more can he also in any manner wise enjoy beauty, nor satisfy the desire that she stirreth up in our minds, with feeling [touch], but with the sense unto whom beauty is the very butt [target] to level [aim] at: namely, the virtue of seeing.

How the lover should behave

[The lover should begin by enjoying the sight and sound of his mistress.] Let him lay aside therefore the blind judgement of the sense, and enjoy with his eyes the brightness, the comeliness, the loving sparkles, laughters, gestures, and all the other pleasant furnitures of beauty; especially with hearing the sweetness of her voice, the tunableness of her words, the melody of her singing and playing on instruments (in case the woman beloved be a musician) and so shall he with most dainty food feed the soul through the means of these two senses, which have little bodily substance in them, and be the ministers of reason, without entering farther toward the body, with coveting unto any longing otherwise than honest.

[He should serve his loved one, and admire her mind.] Afterward let him obey, please, and honour with all reverence his woman, and reckon her more dear to him than his own life, and prefer all her commodities and pleasures before his own, and love no less in her the beauty of mind, than of the body. [Note1] Therefore let him have a care not to suffer her to run into an error, but with lessons and good exhortations seek always to frame her to modesty, to temperance, to true honesty, and so to work that there may never take place in her other than pure thoughts, and far wide from all filthiness of vices. And thus in sowing of virtue in the garden of that mind, he shall also gather the fruits of most beautiful conditions, and savour them with a marvellous good relish.

And this shall be the right engendering and imprinting of beauty in beauty, the which some hold opinion to be the end of love. In this manner shall our Courtier be most acceptable to his Lady, and she will always show herself toward him tractable, lowly and sweet in language, and as willing to please him, as to be beloved of him, and the wills of them both shall be most honest and agreeable, and they consequently shall be most happy.

Here master Morello: The engendering (quoth he) of beauty in beauty aright, were the engendering of a beautiful child in a beautiful woman, and I would think it a more manifest token a great deal that she loved her lover, if she pleased him with this, than with the sweetness of language that you speak of.

Master Peter Bembo laughed, and said: You must not (master Morello) pass your bounds. I may tell you, it is not a small token that a woman loveth, when she giveth unto her lover her beauty, which is so precious a matter; and by the ways that be a passage to the soul, that is to say the sight and the hearing, sendeth the looks of her eyes, the image her countenance, and the voice of her words that pierce into the lover's heart, and give a witness of her love. . .

The virtues of love are grounded on reason not the senses

And because you may moreover the better understand that reasonable love is more happy than sensual, I say unto you that self same things in sensual [love] ought to be denied otherwhile, and in reasonable, granted; because in the one they be honest, and in the other dishonest.

Therefore the woman to please her good lover, beside the granting him merry countenances, familiar and secret talk, jesting, dallying, hand in hand, may also lawfully and without blame come to kissing. . . For since a kiss is a knitting together both of body and soul, it is to be feared lest the sensual lover will be more inclined to the part of the body than of the soul; but the reasonable wotteth [knoweth] well that although the mouth be a parcel [part] of the body, yet is it an issue for the words, that be the interpreters of the soul, and for the inward breath, which is also called the soul. And therefore [the Courtier] hath a delight to join his mouth with the woman's beloved with a kiss; not to stir him to any dishonest desire, but because he feeleth that that bond is the opening of an entry to the souls, which, drawn with a coveting the one of the other, pour themselves by turn the one into the other's body, and be so mingled together, that each of them hath two souls. And one [soul] alone so framed of them both ruleth (in a manner) two bodies. Whereupon, a kiss may be said to be rather a coupling together of the soul, than of the body, because it hath such force in her [the soul], that it draweth her unto it, and (as it were) separateth her from the body. . . [Note 2]

They stood all harkening heedfully to Bembo, reasoning, and after he had stayed a while, and saw that none spake, he said: Since you have made me to begin to show our not young Courtier this happy love, I will lead him yet somewhat farther forwards, because to stand still at this stay were somewhat perilous for him, considering (as we have oftentimes said) the soul is most inclined to the senses. . .

Virtuous love stimulates further virtuous action

Because the influence of that beauty when it is present, giveth a wondrous delight to the lover, and setting his heart on fire, quickeneth and melteth certain virtues [which are] in a trance and congealed in the soul, [Note 3] the which nourished with the heat of love, flow about and go bubbling nigh the heart, and thrust out through the eyes those spirits which be most fine vapours made of the purest and clearest part of the blood, which receive the image of beauty, and deck it with a thousand sundry furnitures.

Whereupon the soul taketh a delight, and with a certain wonder is aghast, [in awe] and yet enjoyeth she it, and (as it were) astonished together with the pleasure, feeleth the fear and reverence that men accustomably have toward holy matters, and thinketh herself to be in Paradise.

[More on the sensual lover.] The lover therefore that considereth only the beauty in the body, loseth this treasure and happiness, as soon as the woman beloved with her departure leaveth the eyes without their brightness, and consequently the soul [is] as a widow without her joy. For since beauty is far off, that influence of love setteth not the heart on fire, as it did in presence.

Whereupon the pores be dried up and withered, and yet doth the remembrance of beauty somewhat stir those virtues of the soul, in such wise that they seek to scatter abroad the spirits, and they, finding the ways closed up, have no issue, and still they seek to get out, and so with those shootings enclosed, prick the soul, and torment her bitterly, as young children when in their tender gums they begin to breed teeth.

And hence come the tears, sighs, vexations and torments of lovers: because the soul is always in affliction and travail and (in a manner) waxeth wood [mad], until the beloved cometh before her once again, and then is she immediately pacified and taketh breath, and thoroughly bent to it, is nourished with most dainty food, and by her will would never depart from so sweet a sight.

To avoid therefore the torment of his absence, and to enjoy beauty with passion, the Courtier by the help of reason must full[y] and wholly call back again the coveting of the body to beauty alone, and (in what he can) behold it in itself simple and pure, and frame it within in his imagination sundered from all matter, and so make it friendly and loving to his soul and there enjoy it, and have it with him day and night, in every time and place, without mistrust ever to lose it; keeping always fast in mind that the body is a most diverse thing from beauty, and not only not increaseth, but diminisheth the perfection of it.

In this wise shall our not young Courtier be out of all bitterness and wretchedness that young men feel (in a manner) continually, as jealousies, suspicions, disdains, angers, desperations, and certain rages full of madness, whereby many times they be led into so great error, that some do not only beat the woman whom they love, but rid themselves out of their life. . . [Note 4]

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  1. Compare Othello's attitude to Desdemona, 1.3.255-69. [Back]

  2. You may be curious enough to look at John Donne's fine poem "The Extasie," a densely argued version of this part of Peter Bembo's oration -- Donne goes further, of course, and ends by suggesting to his partner that the love of the body is necessary for the love of the soul:
    To our bodies turn we then, that so
        Weak men on love revealed may look;
    Love's mysteries in souls do grow,
        But yet the body is his book. [Back]

  3. The virtuous powers in the soul are frozen and inactive until they are stirred by beauty. [Back]

  4. Again compare Othello. [Back]

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
© Michael Best, The University of Victoria, and the Open University of B.C.