Saint Valentine’s Day’s longstanding associations with romantic love find their origins in fourteenth-century courtly love traditions. For the twentieth-century Beatles, the trials and tribulations of romantic love were their stock-in-trade—particularly during the band’s early years.
Back in the heady days of Beatlemania, Lennon and McCartney mined romantic love for all its worth, celebrating the first flush of love in such songs as “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” At the same time, they explored notions of heartbreak in such emotionally wrought tunes as “If I Fell” and “Yesterday.”
In these and other Beatles compositions, the notion of romantic love exists as a powerful, life-altering experience. Indeed, in its manifestation in a number of early Lennon-McCartney songs, this form of love involves qualities often associated with Eros, an object-centered, sometimes irrational love for another individual. But rather interestingly, these early songs rarely featured aspects generally associated with Agape, which connotes an unconditional, and—in contrast with Eros—highly rational sense of love.
In early songs such as “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” instances of love at first sight that leave so many of Lennon and McCartney’s speakers thunderstruck in the face of love are decidedly Erosic. The group’s preoccupation with romantic love
makes perfect sense when one takes into account the prevailing view of love during that same era, a period in which the would-be lovers of the day grappled with similar emotions of Erosic certainty coupled with rash and involuntary feelings of unconditionality.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Western culture “appears to have been swithering between a new agency and bravado, on the one hand, and an ongoing postwar impotence and existential despair, on the other,” Lynne Pearce observes in Romantic Writing (2006). “Women, in particular, still struggled to find a meaningful sense of selfhood, and this led, according to proto-feminists like Betty Friedan, to a strained overemphasis on femininity and sexuality.”
Not surprisingly, this phenomenon resulted in a complicated double-bind in which conservative 1950s-era social values collided with a growing sense of sexual freedom in the early 1960s. And for the Beatles—whose music during this period enjoyed a massive audience of receptive female listeners—this highly complex sociocultural tension manifested itself in the relatively simplistic message that romantic love was both a totalizing erosic experience of steadfast commitment and an unconsidered state of infinite certainty.
But as the 1960s evolved towards more progressive sociopolitical stances, so did the Beatles. As Lennon and McCartney pondered the ethical fractures of contemporary life, they began to offer larger pronouncements about our collective failure to love one another in a spiritual or Agape sense or, perhaps even more importantly, to see the world from the filial perspective of friendship.
We can see this shift in such key compositions as “Eleanor Rigby” and “Lady Madonna.” In both cases, Lennon and McCartney have clearly moved beyond romantic love to consider humankind’s inability to love one another unconditionally, to look out for each other’s welfare beyond the needs of the self. With “Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles consider the lowly, lonely place of an aging spinster whom the world barely sees, much less acknowledges.
When Eleanor Rigby dies alone at the conclusion of the song, Father McKenzie buries his parishioner, forgotten along with her name, in the churchyard. “Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from her grave,” he realizes the awful truth of Eleanor’s predicament—and, indeed, of his own. In the end, the narrator reports, “no one was saved”—not Eleanor, not society, not even ourselves.
In “Lady Madonna,” the Beatles tells the story of another lonely heroine whom society has neglected—and, even more significantly, for whom organized religion remains conspicuously silent. With a brood of children on the loose in an uncaring world—“See how they run”—“Lady Madonna” portrays a broken ethical landscape in which, time and time again, an insensate society turns a blind eye to the suffering. Once again, no one is saved.
In “All You Need Is Love,” the Beatles’ landmark song about the unconditional, transformative powers of Agape and filial love, the bandmates bid farewell to their early years and the naïve, idealistic visions of love that brought them world fame in the first place. Selfish notions of Erosic love have been replaced by a universalizing sense of oneness. In this way, “All You Need Is Love” disavows the egocentric bliss of romantic love to extol the anti-cupidity of caritas—a divine and spiritually minded love for all humanity.
In so doing, “All You Need Is Love” leaves the world with the Beatles’ most enduring gift: a dream of awe-inspiring transcendence and joy that has always been ineluctably simple. You can glimpse caritas overbrimming in a bounty of Beatles songs: “Love is all and love is everyone”; “with our love we could save the world”; “all you need is love”; “love you forever and forever”; “love is all, love is you.”
It’s the word, “love.”