A Poetical Excursion: “Love Has Seven Names” by Hadewijch

I read this poem–translated from the original Dutch–in my copy of World Poetry. I had never heard of Hadewijch before, so I did a little digging. It turns out that’s about all one can do. Very little is known about the life of Hadewijch, a mystic and poet who likely lived at some point in the 13th century in Brabant, a duchy in what is now Holland. Hadewijch wrote in Brabantian, a language predating modern-day Dutch, and just about everything we know about her comes from the writings of hers that have survived. She had some influence, although she seems to have utterly disappeared from European consciousness in the 1600s, only to reemerge in the 1800s when some of her works were found in the Royal Library in Brussels.

An excerpt from Hadewijch’s entry on Poetry Chaikhana:

Little can be said for certain about the life of Hadewijch. Unlike many other women mystics of the time, no biography was written about her, so all we know is what scholars have been able to deduce from her writings themselves.

Hadewijch was probably the head of a Beguine community. The Beguines were a sect of devout women in Belgium, Holland, Germany and northern France. Beguines did not take vows, but they gathered together to live in simplicity and service. Many Beguines were mystics and poets of the highest order.

Hadewijch’s poetry has a rich love mysticism. Like her contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi, Hadewijch was clearly inspired by the courtly love poetry of the Troubadours and Minnensingers. The fact that she was familiar with this courtly art form suggests that Hadewijch was probably born to a noble family.

Love Has Seven Names is most certainly a mystical poem, full of lyrical mystery and very clear mysticism, right from the very first line. Seven names for love? Naturally, since seven is a number that is historically beloved of mystics of all kinds.

Love has seven names.
Do you know what they are?
Rope, Light, Fire, Coal
make up its domain.

The others, also good,
more modest but alive:
Dew, Hell, the Living Water.
I name them here (for they
are in the Scriptures),
explaining every sign
for virtue and form.
I tell the truth in signs.
Love appears every day
for one who offers love.
That wisdom is enough.

Love is a ROPE, for it ties
and holds us in its yoke.
It can do all, nothing snaps it.
You who love must know.

The meaning of LIGHT
is known to those who
offer gifts of love,
approved or condemned.

The Scripture tell us
the symbol of COAL:
the one sublime gift
God gives the intimate soul.

Under the name of FIRE, luck,
bad luck, joy or no joy,
consumes. We are seized
by the same heat from both.

When everything is burnt
in its own violence, the DEW,
coming like a breeze, pauses
and brings the good.

LIVING WATER (its sixth name)
flows and ebbs
as my love grows
and disappears from sight.

HELL (I feel its torture)
damns, covering the world.
Nothing escapes. No one has grace
to see a way out.

Take care, you who wish
to deal with names
for love. Behind their sweetness
and wrath, nothing endures.
Nothing but wounds and kisses.

Though love appears far off,
you will move into its depth.

Not exactly the stuff of Hallmark cards, is it? It’s a very old view of love, not entirely positive and not entirely negative, either. Hadewijch seems to view love as a natural force in itself, neither positive nor negative. It’s something that can go either direction. It is a binding rope, and it is light and fire. It is cleansing dew, and it is actually Hell. That’s pretty amazing. Not every love poem is about comparing thee to a summer’s day.

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