Of Birds & Thorns & The Meaning of Love

 Whenever I have a blue day, I inevitably wind up with a bottle of wine next to me and a slightly worn Complete Works of Oscar Wilde in my lap. The gilt-edged pages are more or less faded, but Wilde is so bright and so constantly right that I find his humour and his heartbreak enormously comforting.

I discovered Oscar at the age of 13–a pivotal age, for me–and to this day, no matter how many times I’ve read a story or an essay or a play or Dorian Gray (which is an awful lot), every page or so there is a line that makes me audibly go “YES. EXACTLY.” Which is really fun on the el, actually.

I digress. Yesterday I was feeling gross and tired and broke and I pulled out The Nightingale and the Rose, one of Wilde’s fairy tales for his children. It’s a personal favorite because it marries modern cynicism with heartbreaking beauty, and love doesn’t win in the end. I don’t know what made me reach for that one; I haven’t read it in probably two years. I didn’t need to. I essentially had it memorized.

The difference now is–and I guess I’m about to get all sentimental on you, so if that’s not your thing…well, it’s not mine either, so I guess just suck it up? I am sucking it up to write this because I feel compelled–the difference is that in the last two years my life has drastically changed. There is so much more love now. It crept up on me, specifically in regards to one person, and became overwhelmingly the most important thing to me practically without my knowledge or understanding. Now that I have that person, every so often I come across something I formerly had either a strong opinion on or had dismissed entirely, and I am forced to reexamine it. He makes me feel simultaneously like I understand everything and nothing at all.

In The Nightingale and the Rose, a little nightingale sits in a tree outside a student’s window, singing prettily as is her nature to do. The student comes home one night and cries bitterly that his love won’t go to a dance with him unless he gives her a red rose. Roses are out of season and he is much too poor for one anyway; he has in essence lost the opportunity to make the girl he loves love him. The nightingale, hearing this, is overcome. She sings about love all day and night but has never seen it first hand. She longs to help the boy, and asks all her friends for help to find a rose for him. They cannot, because there are simply no roses to be had, and the little bird despairs. She feels the boy’s heartache too keenly.

Her friend the Tree tells her there is one way, and all the other birds and animals turn away. They know what it is, and so does the nightingale. The story holds that only a nightingale’s heart’s blood in the light of a full moon can produce a red rose where there are none to be had. Bravely, the little nightingale agrees there is no other way, and so she presses her heart against a thorn in the tree and sings her most beautiful song as life begins to escape her. At first only a ghost of a rose appears, but as the nightingale dies it becomes the most brilliant and beautiful red rose that ever existed, and it is within perfect reach of the boy.

He is elated the next morning to see this miraculous rose and totally ignorant of its source. When he tries to give it to the girl he loves, she tells him it will clash with her dress and anyway, she has already chosen a date for the dance. The boy angrily tosses the rose in the gutter and goes back to his studying, giving up on love entirely.

You can read the full text of the beautiful story here because I can’t do it justice on a blog. The point is, the little bird is so pure and so full of faith in the power of love because she exists solely to sing about it, and the boy has absolutely no idea of the value of what he has just thrown away, and though he is human–arguably also made for love–he only reads about it in books and so easily throws it away in life. It’s depressing, but so poignant. Through my newly rose-tinted glasses (wasn’t the world made to be seen in rose shades anyway?), that little nightingale brought me to tears. There was so much going on outside that boy’s window that he barely knew about, let alone understood. He says when the girl rejects him:

“What a silly thing Love is,” said the Student as he walked away. “It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true. In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.”

For most of my life that was how I felt. I was THE cynic in my group of friends–in many groups, in fact. That was my philosophy. I was always so annoyed when someone would tell me “You’ll change your mind some day.” I sulked and shook my head and thought that I was way too smart to change my mind.

But I did. I did and there is this wonderful person who is here now and it’s terrifying because I have never cherished something so much and been as afraid as I am of the shadow of the possibility of losing him. I am a little bird in a tree singing a song about something I imagine all the time and only partially understand, but that amazes me. Reading this story again broke my heart, and in rebuttal to that awful student who once was me, I have only this to say (and it is yet again through Wilde that I find the words):

“…the imagination itself is the world of light. The world is made by it, and yet the world cannot understand it: that is because the imagination is simply a manifestation of love, and it is love and the capacity for it that distinguishes one human being from another.”
–De Profundis

So however bad a day I’m having; or whatever annoyance is perplexing me; or even if it is a good day, and they frequently are; it is love and the capacity for it that distinguishes me from anyone else, and I have the freedom to know that and the fortune to have it, and isn’t that amazing?