At Castle Bunthorne, twenty lovesick maidens pine and wilt for the love of Reginald Bunthorne, a fleshly poet. Reginald, however, loves only Patience, the village milkmaid. Patience does not know what love is and thus does not know that the utmost happiness comes from being miserable over unrequited love. The lovesick maidens set her straight, however, by showing her that to be in agony, weeping incessantly, is to be truly happy in love. Patience tries to remind them that just a year ago they had all been in love with dragoon guards, yet the maidens still scorn her for being so ignorant about real love. A year ago the maidens had not known Reginald.
The dragoon guards, billeted in the village, see Reginald approaching, followed by the lovesick maidens, singing and playing love songs directed to the fleshly poet. The maidens ignore their former loves, having eyes only for Reginald. Reginald himself has eyes only for Patience, the milkmaid. At the insistence of the maidens, he reads them his latest poem, into which he has poured his whole soul—as he does three times a day. The maidens swoon in ecstasy at the poetry, but Patience says it is just nonsense, which it is.
Later, alone, Reginald confesses that he is a sham, that he hates poetry and all other forms of aesthetic pleasure. When Patience comes upon him, he makes the same confession to her, telling her again that he loves only her, not poetry. However, Patience knows nothing of the love of which he speaks, for she has loved only her great-aunt, and that love does not count. After Reginald has left her, one of the maidens tells Patience that to love is to feel unselfish passion. Patience, ashamed that she has never been unselfish enough to love, promises that before she goes to bed that night she will fall head over heels in love with somebody. In fact, she remembers that when she was a little girl she had liked a little boy of five. Now she is sorry that she had not loved him. It is her duty to love someone. If necessary, she will love a stranger.
Archibald Grosvenor appears unexpectedly upon the scene. He is an idyllic poet who grieves because he is completely perfect. Since he has no rival on Earth in perfection, it is his lot to be loved madly by everyone who sees him. Recognizing Patience, he tells her that he is the little boy she had known when he was five. When...
(The entire section is 963 words.)