The Elephant is Slow to Mate
The elephant, the huge old beast,
is slow to mate;
he finds a female, they show no haste
for the sympathy in their vast shy hearts
slowly, slowly to rouse
as they loiter along the river-beds
and drink and browse
and dash in panic through the brake
of forest with the herd,
and sleep in massive silence, and wake
together, without a word.
So slowly the great hot elephant hearts
grow full of desire,
and the great beasts mate in secret at last,
hiding their fire.
Oldest they are and the wisest of beasts
so they know at last
how to wait for the loneliest of feasts
for the full repast.
They do not snatch, they do not tear;
their massive blood
moves as the moon-tides, near, more near
till they touch in flood.
- by D. H. Lawrence
We had dinner last night with a couple freshly in love, though at a more mature age. She, I would guess, is in her late thirties and he may be a couple years older. I know her better than I know him, and I’ve always thought of her as somehow autonomous in matters of the heart – someone who would date but not seek or find a long-term, “big” relationship. I was mistaken, and it was fun to how “love-struck” plays across the features of those who may have an extra laugh-line around their eyes.
It brought to mind this poem, which I read but didn’t really think much about in high school. This is the famous D.H. Lawrence, whose “filthy” novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was the subject of national controversies in Britain, Australia, India and the United States. Somehow, traditional marriage and life as we know it survived the publication of that book, and I suspect will survive whatever fresh challenges it faces in every generation.
This poem refers back to pantheon of traditional love poems, with special reference to “To his Coy Mistress“, by Andrew Marvell. Indeed, the poem seems almost directly addressed to the first lines of that poem:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood
India is known for its elephants, and Lawrence chooses to defend the sort of love that grows more slowly, unhurried by “Time’s winged chariot”.
Structurally, the poem isn’t a sharply wrought sonnet or other tight form. Instead, it mingles long lines and shorter lines, with kind of a halting and leisurely flow. And notice the vowels – they are almost all long sounds, except for “dash in panic”. One could take 5 minutes to read this poem aloud, if one chose to linger on the long sounds of phrases like “slowly, slowly to rouse”, “show no haste”, and, my favorite, ” their massive blood/ moves as the moon-tides”. Like most great poems, this one gains strength from reading aloud, as the sounds combine with the sense.
Poetry celebrates love in all its forms and depths. Marvell was in a hurry, Paschen wanted a quickie in a taxi, Harrison saw it in an old man smoking and Lawrence waits for the fullness of time. Is love best when two fully mature beings touch in the flood of their gathered experience, as Lawrence describes?
Lawrence, wisely, makes no such claim. He merely celebrates the love that grows more slowly than the immediate love more frequently written in verse. It’s a joy to witness love at any age, at any pace. We two couples talked until after they put the “Closed” signs in the windows. Earlier this week, the state due north of us, a Supreme Court unanimously endorsed the expansion of marriage to include a new form of couple, and people are worried about the impact of that on the institution of marriage. Personally, I suspect that love and marriage will endure like elephants, even if some are dashing in panic.