“We catch our breath at the places where the breath was always caught.”

I was reunited last week, through happy collision on the library shelf, with Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love which is naturally posturingly brilliant. No one have I been more mouth-infected by than Stoppard save, perhaps, Beckett. One’s an aspiration, the other is a viral disease: it’s interesting to study and look at, but my god, please medicate it away.

But Stoppard I love. The only way to properly quote this play is to simply write it out by hand in full.1 Even so it does have a few sentiments that stand alone. One is the line, “We catch our breath at the places where the breath was always caught.” The younger Housman is contesting his older self’s well-made point that, different as the Romans are, it is absurd to think that their idea of “the exquisite” would be the same as ours.

I wrote about this universality of bliss, of wonder, not that long ago. And on the one hand I do agree with older Housman. And on the other, it just feels intuitively true. I wonder if wonder is something you age out of being able to see. Or if this is the curmudgeonly cloak we wear to protect our ability to see bliss. I don’t know enough about Housman to know how it is played.

In any case I think we remember this play for its cleverness, and it is definitely clever. Its sections on the errors of scribes are wonderful. And all the games. Stoppard loves games. But if you read it as it’s meant to be performed, the lead up to the heartbreaking poem that slapped me in the face out of nowhere is incredibly powerful.

He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,
And went with half my life about my ways.

…it could just as easily end “then lay upon the pyre in mercy’s blaze” or something like that (hopefully better than that). Going about your ways is so English. Whichever, though. It’s funny that heartbreak actually feels like a broken heart. I always wonder which came first, the metaphor or the sensation. Is it only because I know these words that I feel my heart torn in sunder? Ah, the eternal question.

It’s nice to be topped up by plays like this, anyway. Even if you’ve read or, better, seen it, it stands up. Go read it! And then Arcadia. You’ve probably already seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enough times, but read that too.

  1. Which will be poetically problematic for some, given that there are a few lines in Greek, which seems somewhat unsporting.