HD in “Fragment 40” illustrates the importance of freedom, authenticity and willingness of desire, the impossibility of forcing or possessing love, and the role of perception and acceptance in our experience of love and longing.
The opening invocation to – and quotation from – Sappho prepares us, setting our emotions in question. “Love bitter-sweet.” What does this mean? Is it an observation? A longing? A command? Cynicism?
HD then takes us on a journey which parallels the experience of love from innocence through maturity. Early love is heady, greedy, insecure. It wants to captivate and be captivating, urgently. Yet love eludes these efforts, desperate for the air of freedom essential to its survival: fire is snuffed when deprived of oxygen.
Love responds by “mocking us,” “outdistancing us,” and again, “he mocks.” These little insults add up like a thousand small cuts, frustrating while further urging our ineffectual striving. The “honey and salt” tend so differently to our wounds: one antiseptic; the other stinging.
How interesting that love is a “he.” Is this an allusion to Eros, who is shortly named? A love of H.D.’s? Is love necessarily masculine, or male?
Regardless, the harder love is forced, the further it pulls away. But when imprisoned, it withers like a wild bird caged. Ephemeral and impossible to possess, love loses its allure when trapped. Its form is mutable, slipping away both from a grasp or in it.
That love leaves keeps alive the longing, the effort. Love cannot bear complacency just as it rejects confinement. It is active, adventurous, demanding our growth.
But “which is more sweet,” the sweet or the bitter? A pinch of salt in the baking heightens the sense of sweetness, without any objective change. Bitterness improves the perception of sweetness.
The passage of a soul through “darkness” is a common trope for growth, and mature love offers no escape from such anguish: the anguish of a cracked, false fragility, the breaking of a shell that reveals a luminous and resilient pearl.
Anguish cracks open new depths within us, and it is the only way to reveal the gem, the strong inner core. Like a kind of inverse Pandora’s box, bitterness is accompanied by assurance, confidence, peace, and acceptance that love, “stands…over us,” ever present, all-embracing, an invisible but constant protective force. There is no need to imprison, for love is always above us and all around.