Only love can break your heart. Only love can save you. Only love can damn you. Neil Young, Dante, Purgatorio, the power of love.

I first discovered Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” via St Etienne’s version. If a “standard” can be defined as a song whose essence and meaning transcend the original recording (and whatever arrangement), very few rock songs do. By and large, there is a “definitive” version, usually the original. And since The Beatles, there has been a bias towards singers singing their own compositions as somehow more authentic than singing a song written by another.

Anyway, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is an exception to this rule. As the St Etienne version, there are a hosts of others from I Blame Coco to Rickie Lee Jones to Joe Dolan, most of which follow the Neil Young arrangement closely but many of which follow their own path. Here’s a Spotify playlist.

“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” always struck me as a lyrically slightly undercooked song. , with a killer chorus but rather pedestrian verses.

But perhaps I am over intellectualising. Which is the appropriate segue to Canto 17 of Purgatorio from The Divine Comedy of Dante.

This Canto is the 51st of the 100 cantos of the Divine Comedy. The central cantos of each of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso expound the key themes of the whole poem, and as this is in the central section of the entire Comedy it is particularly rich.

Here, Virgil expounds to DAnte that all we do is motivated by love. All we do, good or bad. Virgil makes distinctions; between “natural love”, instilled in us and which cannot err, and “elective love”, which can. Here are lines 85-105

Ed elli a me: «L’amor del bene, scemo
del suo dover, quiritta si ristora;
qui si ribatte il mal tardato remo.

Ma perché più aperto intendi ancora,
volgi la mente a me, e prenderai
alcun buon frutto di nostra dimora».

«Né creator né creatura mai»,
cominciò el, «figliuol, fu sanza amore,
o naturale o d’animo; e tu ’l sai.

Lo naturale è sempre sanza errore,
ma l’altro puote errar per malo obietto
o per troppo o per poco di vigore.

Mentre ch’elli è nel primo ben diretto,
e ne’ secondi sé stesso misura,
esser non può cagion di mal diletto;

ma quando al mal si torce, o con più cura
o con men che non dee corre nel bene,
contra ’l fattore adovra sua fattura.

Quinci comprender puoi ch’esser convene
amor sementa in voi d’ogne virtute
e d’ogne operazion che merta pene.

Here is Longfellow’s translation, from Genius.Com:

And he to me: “The love of good, remiss
In what it should have done, is here restored;
Here plied again the ill-belated oar;

But still more openly to understand,
Turn unto me thy mind, and thou shalt gather
Some profitable fruit from our delay.

Neither Creator nor a creature ever,
Son,” he began, “was destitute of love
Natural or spiritual; and thou knowest it.

The natural was ever without error;
But err the other may by evil object,
Or by too much, or by too little vigour.

While in the first it well directed is,
And in the second moderates itself,
It cannot be the cause of sinful pleasure;

But when to ill it turns, and, with more care
Or lesser than it ought, runs after good,
‘Gainst the Creator works his own creation.

Hence thou mayst comprehend that love must be
The seed within yourselves of every virtue,
And every act that merits punishment.

Now, according to Genius.Com, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” was written by Young to console Graham Nash after he split with Joni Mitchell, although this is “something that Young himself hasn’t fully verified and have been tentative in admitting in interviews.”

It might be a stretch to read a direct reference to the Purgatorio here… well, a massive stretch. But listening to the song gave me a sudden insight into the truth of this canto. Dante’s thought is grounded in references to the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, but at its heart is the relatively (deceptively) simple assertion that love, sometimes misdirected love, is at the root of our actions (this love is not necessarily directed to a person, but can be to a cause, an idea, a material thing, one’s own selfish desires)

Another link between the song and this canto is the theme of sloth. Tardy, misguided love is what is being purified in Cantos 17 (and 18) of Purgatorio (perhaps appropriately, both cantos are dominated not by this purgation but by Virgil’s exposition on Love) And in the first verse, Young sings:

I was always thinking
Of games that I was playing
Trying to make
The best of my time

Before this, we have lines that remind one of the dark wood reached at the midpoint of life where the straight way was confused:

When you were young
And on your own
How did it feel
To be alone?

The second verse could be read as a plea against accidie:

I have a friend
I’ve never seen
He hides his head
Inside a dream
Someone should call him
And see if he can come out
Try to lose
The down that he’s found

The refrain:

only love
Can break your heart
Try to be sure
Right from the start
Yes only love
Can break your heart
What if your world
Should fall apart?

clearly states the power of love (negative and distressing as well as positive) There is the injunction, in vain like many of the pleas to the Florentines made by various characters throughout the Comedy, to “try to be sure/Right from the start” And the stakes are high : “What if your world/Should fall apart?”

I wonder how many other blog posts have referenced both Joe Dolan and Dante?

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