What a nice coincidence if you are reading this column on Valentine’s Day which inspires its subject of love, that many-splendored thing, or as some wags have it, that many-splintered thing! Whatever it is, it makes the world go ‘round, it’s blind, it’s the ambassador of loss, it’s a kind of warfare (Ovid) — it’s so much and so many things that we spend our lives trying to figure it out, if we’re lucky.

Poets and prose writers have tried to define it: In “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Robert Heinlein said, “Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” Aristotle saw love as “composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” Hermann Hesse, the German poet, said, “If I know what love is, it is because of you.” Dolly Parton had a wry opinion of love: “Love is something sent from heaven to worry the hell out of you” while John Lennon wrote, “Love is the flower; you’ve got to let it grow.” Maybe he was inspired by Victor Hugo who said, “Life is the flower for which love is the honey.” Advice columnist Ann Landers defined love as “friendship that has caught fire.”

LOVE’S EFFECTS

What are the effects of love and loving? Orson Welles said, “We’re born alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” The Chinese poet Lao Tzu reminds us that “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” American novelist John Updike asserts: “We are most alive when we’re in love.” And that ever-enigmatic James Joyce says, “Love loves to love love.” Plato may have been on target when he said, “At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet,” though Jane Austen in “Pride and Prejudice” has the heroine Elizabeth Bennett warn: “I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love.” Her antagonist, Mr. Darcy, responds, “I thought poetry was the food of love,” to which Elizabeth responds, “Of a fine stout love, it may. But if it only a vague inclination I’m convinced one poor sonnet will kill it stone dead.”

Still, it is the poets we turn to when we talk about love. Charles M. Schulz opined: “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Erich Segal of “Love Story” fame, said: “True love comes quietly, without banners or flashing lights. If you hear bells, get your ears checked.” Writer George Sand commented on the importance of love in our lives: “There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.” Henry Miller reminded us: The only thing we never get enough of is love, and the only thing we never give enough of is love.” The German writer Goethe observed that “Love does not dominate; it cultivates.” In that same vein, Maya Angelou said, “Love recognizes no barriers.”

Kisses are the companions of love, though Mother Teresa said, “The smile is the beginning of love.” Actress Ingrid Bergman commented on kisses: “A kiss is a lovely trick, designed by nature, to stop words when speech becomes superfluous.” That down-to-earth Barbara Bush said, “I married the first man I ever kissed. When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up.”

FALLING IN LOVE

What does it mean to “fall in love”? Writers have addressed this phenomenon, too: Albert Einstein said, “You can’t blame gravity for falling in love.” We can fall in love at any point in our lives, but a Turkish proverb reminds us: “Young love is from the earth, and late love is from heaven.” Kahlil Gibran wisely commented on the nature of love: “It is wrong to think that love comes from long companionship and persevering courtship. Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity, and unless that affinity is created in a moment, it will not be created for years or even generations.” Speaking of the spiritual nature of love, too, is Jorge Luis Borges: “To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.”

How do we know when we are in love? Dr. Seuss said: “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because the reality is finally better than your dreams.” Celine Dion asserts, “Maybe I don’t know much, but I know this much is true. I was blessed because I was loved by you.” F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “I love her, and that’s the beginning and end of everything.” Rumi notes the scope of love: “Love is the whole thing. We are only pieces.”

Shakespeare wrote so many love poems, especially sonnets, that it’s hard to find the one that best captures what love is or should be. Sonnet 116 is always a favorite with its lines, “... Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove: / Oh, no! it is an ever fixed mark, / That looks on tempests and is never shaken; / It is the star to every wandering bark, / Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”

And film goers recall the scene from “Wedding Crashers” when the two main characters bet on whether the Bible reading will be First Corinthians 13: 4-8 or Colossians 3. The passage from Corinthians is so familiar that it is almost a cliché: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

People fail, but love doesn’t. Whatever it is, we want and need it in our lives, and as we grow older, we realize love is not what we say but what we do.

Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.