“What harder thing than smart, and not to speak?”


Tristan and Isolt (Death), Rogelio de Egusquiza, 1910.

Illicit Love and the Production of Literature

The end of the eleventh century in Britain and France saw the invention of a kind of romantic love—“courtly love”—which arose out of a particular combination of societal and political conditions (Lewis, 1-5). As C. S. Lewis described it in his The Allegory of Love, “courtly love” was distinguished by “Humility, Courtesy, [and] Adultery,” wherein “the lover is always abject,” and the love itself “is always what the nineteenth century called ‘dishonorable’ love” (Lewis, 2), which is to say an illicit love, outside the bounds of marriage and of society. Lewis traces the origins and the extent of the literature of courtly love, but not, perhaps, why this particular human invention produced quite so much writing. If “dishonorable love” is most always characterized by a particular abjection on the part of the lover (or lovers), as Lewis states, a connection between that abjection itself and the production of writing, of fiction, of language seems forthcoming. After all, the connection between abject lovers and the process of writing and composition extends far beyond the courtly love of the Middle Ages. Wherever love or certain types of love is prohibited by society, abjection results, and from that abjection, prose and verse.

In his “Poichè la vista angelica, serena”(Sonnet 276), Petrarch looks to writing for some release from his suffering, writing “in great sadness, and gloomy horror, / I search for words to ease my pain” (Petrarch, 3-4). And whence exactly Petrarch’s suffering? Lord Byron sums up the heart of it neatly in an aside in Don Juan: “Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife, / He would have written sonnets all his life?” (Byron, Canto III. 8). Petrarch’s driving force in his writing is not that his love is unrequited (for of course his love could be requited even were Laura not his wife); it is that his love is forbidden by the strictures of society and hence he has nowhere else to turn. His pen and his writing can be his only succor since the feelings which rend him stem from a place outside society’s strictures—that he feels it marginalizes him, forcing him to turn inward for help. The abjection of which Lewis speaks and which produces the literature of illicit love is the result of the forced marginality experienced by the lover(s), which, forbidding public expression, drives their pain inwards and their hands to their pens (or their fingers to their harps). 

Such is the case of Sir Philip Sidney’s late 16th century Astrophil and Stella which, though not medieval, follows closely in the tradition of courtly love and right on the heels of Petrarch. Central to the work is Astrophil’s relation to his writing, which charts the progress (or lack thereof) of his love for the reluctant (and eventually married and therefore entirely forbidden) Stella. Astrophil begins by proclaiming that his goal in writing his sonnets is to seek “fit words to paint the blackest face of woe” that “dear She [Stella] might take some pleasure of my pain” (Sidney, 1.2,5) and through entertaining, perhaps win pity and grace from her. In the pursuit of this project, Astrophil slots right into Lewis’ analysis of the male abjection attendant on illicit love. For Lewis, this abjection is “obedience,” wherein the lover (the man in courtly love) abases himself before the beloved, suffering all manner of humiliations and rebukes for the love of his lady (Lewis, 2). Astrophil figures Stella as all manner of figures of power, from a “princess” and a “queen” (28, 107) to a “school-mistress” by whose lessons he “needs must smart” (Kimborough, 188.46.10-11). He repeatedly emphasizes his powerlessness before Stella: he wastes his youth and his wealth attempting to please her, though he knows it to be in vain (18); he figures himself as her “servant” (Fifth Song, 107) and even her “slave” (47); and above all his pen is slave to the thought of her: she is ever an “absent presence” (Sidney, 106.1) in his writing, in his life; he cannot be rid of her. Thus Astrophil is indeed abject, submissive to Stella in every way, save perhaps the most important: he will not submit to her wish for him to leave her be. Astrophil’s abjection is simultaneously cause, effect, and affect: he affects it to prove his love to her and to attempt to win her pity and eventual love; it is the effect of his illicit obsession, forbidden as he is by both the object of his love and society to openly pursue her, his only route of expression is submission; and it causes him to turn to writing as a private means of proving his submission. Thus it is the illicit nature of his love for Stella which leads Astrophil to turn to writing.

Lewis’ definition of abjection as relating only to its sense of obedience and self-abasement, though, is limiting when looking at the literature of illicit love as a whole, even with regard to the particular period of the Middle Ages. Marie de France’s late 12th century lay Chevrefoil, for instance, deals with illicit love and the writing its attendant abjection produces and yet in Chevrefoil, not only does Tristan not abase himself before Iseult, but the entire lay revolves around their equality in the symbolism of “with the two of them it was just / as it was with the honeysuckle / that attaches itself to the hazel tree” (France, 68-70), lines whose particular construction does not allow any determination of which of the two lovers is the hazel and which the honeysuckle, emphasizing the equality of their relationship. Merriam-Webster defines the first two meanings of abject as “1: sunk to or existing in a low state or condition; 2: a) cast down in spirit b) showing hopelessness or resignation” and in his Key Contemporary Concepts, John Lechte highlights that “wretchedness” is among abjection’s earlier meanings, along with “extreme debasement” (Lechte, 10). This expansion of the word to include its connotations of despondency and wretchedness encompasses Tristan, despite his equality with Iseult. At the start of the lay, Tristan is “dolent e pensis” (roughly “sorrowful and pensive”), wretched enough that he repeatedly “expose[s] himself / to death and destruction” (France, 19-20). He is sufficiently low in spirits that he has little to no concern for his own life. The poet explains that his mood and behavior stem from his inability to “satisfy his desires” (France, 24) and that he sets off for Cornwall, “where the queen lived” (28) in order to achieve some satisfaction. While an initial interpretation of this line might tend toward the sexual, it becomes clear by the end of the poem, after both the explanation of the central symbolism and Tristan and Iseult’s taking “great joy in each other” (France, 94), that Tristan’s desires run deeper than a need for sex: he desires a world where his love for Iseult and hers for him need not exist only in the shadows of the forest, on the margins of society, but can be enjoyed and expressed openly. In the eleven lines of bliss the lovers are allowed, only one line is dedicated to their sexual relations. Of the remaining ten, seven deal with the lovers’ conversation, two with her arrival, and one her departure. From these proportions, it becomes clear that in their bubble amidst the storm, Marie de France privileges their free and open communication and communion above their (sexual) pleasure. The symbol of their inseparable entwinement in the hazel and the honeysuckle extends beyond the physical to the spiritual: these are two souls, two minds which are entirely compatible and their love is something which surpasses lust or simple passion.

Just as Astrophil is limited to his writing to express his feelings for Stella and to attempt to win her love, Tristan and Iseult are forced to rely on writing to enable their illicit love. Because it is forbidden by society, their love is quite literally relegated to the margins: the story takes place while Tristan is in exile, in Cornwall—an edge of Britain, in the forests—the margins of society, off the road). At the center of the lay is a private writing, meant only for one person, whose purpose is to facilitate a love exiled from the centers of society: Tristan’s message to Iseult on the hazel rod, by which she knows that her lover is nearby and his love for her is as strong as ever.  Tristan carves his name into the hazel and this “writing”in combination with the medium of the message, the hazel itself, forms almost a private code by which Iseult understands all and is able to find her love. Iseult receives and understands the message as quickly and as thoroughly as she does partially because she is expecting it: this writing is part of a system they have established by which to facilitate their illicit love, something which “ha[s] happened before”(France, 57). Thus their forbidden relationship literally relies upon the writing which it also directly produces in order to keep itself alive.

However, this is not the only instance of writing with which the lay is concerned, nor is it the most important writing their illicit love produces. Chevrefoil is not merely a lay composed by Marie de France about Tristan and Iseult and a moment of happiness in their legend, but a lay about the lay written by Tristan after Iseult leaves him once more: he writes it “for the joy that he’d felt / from his love when he saw her” (France, 107-108) and by which “to remember the words” (France, 111). This latter line’s double-meaning particularly emphasizes Tristan’s desires: he composes a lay (he writes music to accompany his words) “in order to remember the words” he has written, but also “in order to remember the words” of love for one another which the lovers exchanged in their moment of happiness as well as the words which were exchanged via his message of the hazel rod. Once Iseult has left him, returning to society’s fold, Tristan’s black mood descends once more, symbolized by his return to Wales, his location at the start of the lay, where he was “dolent e pensis” and cared little for his life. Nothing has changed for Tristan. He enjoyed a brief moment of happiness with his love, but both she and he are still married, he is still exiled, and their love is still entirely forbidden by the strictures of their society. He can do nothing but wait for his uncle’s call and even then his love will still be an illicit one. He is rendered powerless by society and by his waiting. Wretched and hopeless, resigned to his waiting and forbidden from expressing his love publicly, Tristan turns to the only thing left to him: his powers of composition. In writing a lay by which to commemorate the joy he shared with Iseult and their words of love, Tristan seeks not only to ensure that his love, though suppressed by his society, will thrive for posterity, but also to create a release for the built up pressure illicit love places on him. Since his love is forbidden, he has no one to discuss it with but Iseult, and they are not often or easily together. Writing and composing his lay is necessary for Tristan in his abject state in order to give himself something to hold onto as a beacon of hope, a reminder of happiness, a way to deal with his present state of mind. Without the lay, his shining memory might easily slip away, but in giving it specific words and a tune, he gives himself something to remind him of his love and the bliss he shared with her, something with which to combat his sadness, the tristesse embedded in his very name. In writing, he renders Iseult an “absent presence,” as Stella is to Astrophil, though for Tristan, absent presence is better than no presence at all.

In light of the analysis of Tristan’s broader abjection and the way in which it drives him to write, it is interesting to return to Astrophil’s relation to Stella and his writing. Though Astrophil quite obviously falls into Lewis’narrower abjection, he also suffers from a more Tristanian abjection, as well, which increases as the sonnet sequence progresses and particularly after Stella is married, rendering his love for her unequivocally illicit. Though his first sonnet proclaims his intention to impress Stella with his wit, Astrophil’s relation with his writing soon morphs into something darker and more complex. By sonnet 34, he is having dialogues with himself about his reasons for writing: “Come, let me write. ‘And to what end?’To ease / A burdened heart”(Sidney, 34.1-2), he begins, shifting the focus of his writing from Stella to himself, at least in terms of its purpose and destination, if not content. No longer does he intend his writing to be read by Stella or to be read at all. When he asks himself whether “wise men [will] think thy words fond ware”(Sidney, 34.7) he answers that they will be “close, and so none shall displease”(Sidney, 34.8). Without meaning to, Astrophil has begun to turn to his writing to ease the pain of illicit love just as Petrarch and Tristan do. In writing, he sees the potential for disentangling his feelings and perhaps even understanding them (sonnet 34), but, perhaps more importantly, writing provides release for his pent-up emotion. “What harder thing than smart, and not to speak?”(Sidney, 34.10) Astrophil asks himself rhetorically. He, too, has begun to feel the pressure of an illicit love. With absolutely no one to turn to (at least Tristan occasionally had Iseult), Astrophil “wreak[s] / [his] harms on Ink’s poor loss”(Sidney, 34.12-13), producing writing as a way of understanding and relieving his illicit suffering. Thus the final line of his first sonnet—“‘Fool,’said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart and write’”(Sidney, 1.14)—takes on new meaning. When at first he began, that line held little power or meaning; he uttered it flippantly, as part of his affected self-abasement, calling himself a fool and establishing himself as a novice poet. However, as the sonnets progress, Astrophil begins to turn ever inward, as sonnet 34 suggests. Stella’s presence is not at all lessened in his verse, but its mood and purpose shift—as the illicit nature of his love solidifies—towards an effort to delve into his heart and ease the suffering he finds there. Later, in sonnet 55, he once again addresses the muses, this time dismissing them, rather than invoking them. No longer does he seek aid in garlanding “with choicest flowers my speech”(Sidney, 55.2) in hopes to win grace; no longer will he “stay whole troops of saddest words”for lack of knowing how to arrange them. Now he intends not to sugar his words, but to allow them to flow “in true but naked show”(Sidney, 55.3), even if it means repeatedly crying Stella’s name and nothing else. Artifice has fallen. Writing which was initially produced as the only way to express an illicit love and perhaps gain favor with that love’s object, is now being produced by the pressure and pain that illicit love brought Astrophil, as the only way by which to mediate it.

There is one final way in which illicit love produces writing, which further unites both Chevrefoil and Astrophil and Stella. Since, by nature, illicit loves must be private, hidden loves, which cannot be shared with society (hence driving their participants to turn inward and express themselves in writing, rather than to others), the only way which they can be brought into society at large is through fictionalization, which renders them distant and harmless. Though, for the actors themselves in illicit love, writing provides connection and release, their writing or composition, once read by a general public, is rendered distant. Writer becomes poetic subject, becomes a character. Composition and reality are teased apart just enough so as to allow acceptance by the society whose marginalizing prohibitions and strictures generated the writing in the first place. Illicit love as a subject cannot be accepted by the society which renders it illicit unless it has been separated from reality—unless it has been made literature. Whereas loves which exist within society’s bounds are free to exist without restraint at the center of society, not only does illicit love generate writing as a means for dealing with the pain and pressure it causes, but as a means of infiltrating the society which forbade and expulsed it. Thus illicit love produces writing and literature because those involved in it have nowhere to turn to but the page or the harp before them, but also in order to reconstitute itself at the center of society. The literature of illicit love eases the pains of its writers and, indirectly, reintegrates them with the societies which marginalized them in the first place, if only for posterity.


Byron, George Gordon. “Don Juan.” The Complete Works of Lord Byron. Beaudry’s European Library. Paris. 1835.

France, Marie de. “Chevrefoil.” The Middle Ages. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012. 167-169. Print. Vol. A of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

France, Marie de. “Le Lai du Chevrefoil.” Jacques Prévost. Web. 29 April, 2016. <http://jacques.prevost.free.fr/moyen_age/MariedeFrance_chevrefeuille.htm>

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Allegory of Love. Oxford University Press, London 1948.

Sidney, Philip. “Astrophel and Stella.” Sidney: Prose and Poetry. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. 1983. 163-240.

Sidney, Philip. “Astrophil and Stella.” The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012. 1084-1101. Print. Vol. B of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

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