to carry a torch

The idiom “to carry a torch” (for someone) means to love or to be romantically infatuated with a person, especially when such feelings are not reciprocated.

The torch is a common emblem of both enlightenment and hope. Thus the Statue of Liberty, actually Liberty Enlightening the World, lifts her torch. Crossed reversed torches were signs of mourning that appear on Greek and Roman funerary monuments—a torch pointed downwards symbolized death, while a torch held up symbolized life, truth and the regenerative power of flame. 

However, we use the phrase most often in the romantic sense. A “torch song” is typically a sentimental love song in which a female singer laments an unrequited love. The lines reliably refer to the one who got away, and now the singer is left alone, picking up the pieces. The words may be listened to over and over after a bad breakup.

Music historian Ted Gioia, in his book Love Songs: The Hidden History, links the term to a 1927 Vanity Fair piece, which cites Walter Winchell as its source. According to the article, the phrase “torch song” was used in “Broadway late places” by patrons requesting sad love ballads. Apparently Winchell explained to readers that, “When a fellow ‘carries the torch’ it doesn’t imply that he is ‘lit up’ or drunk, but girl-less. His steady has quit him for another or he is lonesome for her.”

Gioia writes, “Others, perhaps more erudite or merely imaginative, have tried to link the phrase back to the torches carried by ancient Greek revelers at the wedding processions.” 

On the night of the wedding, a torch made of hawthorn twigs would be lit in the fire of the bride’s former home to light the fire in the hearth of her new home. There is no agreement on who would actually hold the torch. Some say the bride, others the bride’s mother, still others say that three young boys would accompany the bride, two holding her hands and the third leading the way, carrying the torch himself.

The torch was said to have symbolized the newly formed connection between the two households. Like today’s bouquet-throwing tradition, the bride is said to have flung the torch into the crowd. Despite the danger of being singed or burnt, catching the torch was said to grant its new possessor a long life. 

This ritual may have been connected to Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth, home, and family. Or it may have been meant to represent Demeter, who searched for her daughter Persephone by torchlight after her abduction by Hades. The torch symbol is also represented in works of art depicting Greek gods.

Today, those who are heartbroken and symbolically carrying a torch, may be lucky enough to be also possess talent. If so, they can create powerful music.

It’s up to you and me whether we cry or sing at karaoke. I don’t have a  choice: I can’t sing!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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